Sunday, June 3, 2007

A Crisis in Science, and A Call for Change

There is a crisis emerging in science, unfolding right at this moment. It is a crisis in funding, but also in organisation.

Essentially, the scientific infrastructure has been organized to the needs of disciplinary science, specialist science, especially that which leads to new technology, whether electronic, biological or other. This way of doing things has been hugely successful in generating technology, but it is under increasing pressure to do more, and the system is beginning to crack along the seams.

Within the social science arena, scholarship has been organized for decades towards a critical stance with regard to the popularity of technology-driven science, a kind of polarized response to the obsessive and overly narrow organisation of the physical and biological sciences.

As indicated in an earlier post, the system has evolved under pressure from within and without towards a much greater multidisciplinary focus. Mixing the disciplines serves innovation but not always technology, however, it most strongly serves a more ecological, whole systems perspective necessary for dealing with the environmental crisis and the changing population demographics.

Funding agencies and universities have adapted to the changing nature of scientific research in a variety of ways. Funding agencies have used the cross-disciplinary focus to increase the numbers of people funded, and have accommodated multidisciplinarity by introducing mixed peer-review committees, but the overall system remains fundamentally grounded in a peer review process. Peer review as-a-process is profoundly disciplinary in focus - it requires that people around the table discussing proposals know enough about the work being proposed to be able to make a reasonable judgement about its overall worth and relevance. This ability is increasingly diminished in the presence of multidisciplinary work - even when members of the disciplines relevant to the work are present, if they have not worked together in similar ways they will not necessary understand the worth of the work proposed. This is causing a breakdown in the system, even though the public discourse covers the problem up with disarming talk about multidisciplinary committees. The system is not working as it is supposed to. The more multidisciplinary and cross-disciplinary one's focus, the less likely one will get a good hearing for what one is proposing.

Universities, likewise, have "bent" the system by creating new departments that are the result of amalgams of older groups of disciplines, but this process has likewise backfired - many of the new disciplines are even more defensive of their "disciplinary territory" as were the older disciplines from which they emerged. The universities are structured along disciplinary lines, and hence true multidisciplinary work lies in the cracks between disciplines. Multidisciplinary work, by its very nature, is paradoxical, and disciplines are orthodoxies. The two do not mix well.

In addition, the public is increasingly demanding that science, on-going, state-of-the-art, actual science, be couched in a language that the broader public can understand and follow. This is especially true in medical science, but a similar push is underway in other areas of research as well. As a general case, the scientific community has no idea how to react to this pressure, except to increase the number of press releases and attempt to make a few documentaries... neither an effective response to the growing demand.

The irony of this complex situation is that funds are drying up for truly innovative work on the margins of modern science, and there is a retrenchment towards a classic disciplinary focus in both universities and funding agencies, even for disciplines that never had a "classical stage"! In Canada, the system is in crisis. In other parts of the world, if the crisis isn't already declared, it soon will be.

In an earlier blog, I also discussed some of the difficulties with the current scientific review process in a multidisciplinary context. Current journal policy requires "adequate" citation of earlier work, but the measurement of "adequate citation" is no longer standard, as it once was within a narrower disciplinary context. Now it depends on who is doing the evaluation, and their reactions are beginning to look like a random field.

The organisation of science, science funding, and science dissemination is due for a major overhaul, past due. It will either stall, or suffer from a massive revolt from within the ranks. Many scientists who have made the jump to a multidisciplinary focus will not go back to a disciplinary one - even if the funding arrangements require this to occur. A new generation of researchers has been trained in a more multidisciplinary focus, it will be hard to put the genie back into the box!

Perhaps it is time that scientists swallow their pride and open their discourse to the public. Already some funding initiatives have been launched that allow the public to contribute money directly, via the web, to support relevant science funding. Perhaps committees might be set up via the internet to oversee publication - not only scientists, but members of the public, under joint arrangements... I am certain if a call went out, there would be people interested and willing to participate. Time also for the universities to modularise their knowledge more effectively. Rather than be organized in disciplinary units, perhaps they might be reorganised into "project units" - a radical idea, I know, for most academics. There are many other ways to "democratize" science, and they need to be discussed.

The crisis is not going to go away. It's going to become a lot deeper and darker than it already is.

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