You Ought to Have a Look: On Fixing Science


This week we focus on an in-depth article in Slate authored by Sam Apple that profiles John Arnold, “one of the least known billionaires in the U.S.” Turns out Mr. Arnold is very interested in “fixing” science.

His foundation, the Arnold Foundation, has provided a good deal of funding to various research efforts across the country and across disciplines aimed at investigating how the scientific incentive structure results in biased (aka “bad”) science.

His foundation has supported several high-profile science-finding replication efforts, such as those being run by Stanford’s John Ioannidis (whose work we are very fond of) and University of Virginia’s Brian Nosek who runs a venture called the “Reproducibility Project” (and who pioneered the badge system of rewards for open science that we previously discussed).

The Arnold Foundation has also provided support for the re-examining of nutritional science, an effort lead by Gary Taubes (also a favorite of ours), as well as investigations into the scientific review process behind the U.S. government’s dietary guidelines, spearheaded by journalist Nina Teicholz.

Apple writes that:

In my conversations with Arnold and his grantees, the word incentives seems to come up more than any other. The problem, they claim, isn’t that scientists don’t want to do the right thing. On the contrary, Arnold says he believes that most researchers go into their work with the best of intentions, only to be led astray by a system that rewards the wrong behaviors.

This is something that we, too, repeatedly highlight at the Center for the Study of Science and investigating its impact is what we are built around.

Apple continues:

[S]cience, itself, through its systems of publication, funding, and advancement—had become biased toward generating a certain kind of finding: novel, attention grabbing, but ultimately unreliable…

“As a general rule, the incentives related to quantitative research are very different in the social sciences and in financial practice,” says James Owen Weatherall, author of The Physics of Wall Street. “In the sciences, one is mostly incentivized to publish journal articles, and especially to publish the sorts of attention-grabbing and controversial articles that get widely cited and picked up by the popular media. The articles have to appear methodologically sound, but this is generally a lower standard than being completely convincing. In finance, meanwhile, at least when one is trading with one’s own money, there are strong incentives to work to that stronger standard. One is literally betting on one’s research.”

Another term for “betting on one’s research” is having some “skin in the game”—a concept that Judy Curry expounds upon on in her blog piece on her transition from academia to her weather and climate forecasting business, for

reasons hav[ing] to do with my growing disenchantment with universities, the academic field of climate science and scientists…The reward system that is in place for university faculty members is becoming increasingly counterproductive to actually educating students to be able to think and cope in the real world, and in expanding the frontiers of knowledge in a meaningful way (at least in certain fields that are publicly relevant such as climate change).

Further, she said

I said in my post JC in transition that I thought that the private sector is a more ‘honest’ place for a scientist than academia. In this context, in the private sector you have skin in the game with regards to weather forecasts (and shorter term climate forecasts), whereas in academia scientists have no skin in the game in terms of the climate change projections.

Making shorter term weather or climate forecasts, with some skin in the game, would be very good experience for academic climate scientists. And this experience just might end up changing their perspectives on uncertainty and forecast confidence.

In the Slate article, Apple sees the ultimate efforts of Arnold and those he’s helping to support, as trying to tap into scientists’ natural inclination towards providing valuable research, and, much as Curry suggests, finding ways to alter the existing incentive structure towards that goal:

Scientists really do want to discover things that make a difference in people’s lives. In a sense, that’s the strongest weapon that we have. We can feed off that. Figuring out exactly which rewards work best and how to simultaneously change the incentives for researchers, institutions, journals, and funders is now a key area of interest…

We couldn’t agree more.

Be sure to check out Apple’s full article for some great background on John Arnold and more details from the efforts that he supports, as well Judy’s excellent set of posts her reasons for leaving academia and heading full-time into the private sphere. You ought to have a look.

And before we go, we wanted to pass along this bit of carbon tax news:

Tesla Motors Inc. founder Elon Musk is pressing the Trump administration to adopt a tax on carbon emissions, raising the issue directly with President Donald Trump and U.S. business leaders at a White House meeting Monday regarding manufacturing.

A senior White House official said Musk floated the idea of a carbon tax at the meeting but got little or no support among the executives at the White House, signaling that Trump’s conservative political orbit remains tepid on the issue.

Hold firm fellas!