Photo: Chair (cropped), Zen Sutherland via Flickr.com CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
No, it isn’t, of course, but you’d sure think it is if you chat around the water cooler, pay attention to Twitter, or read blogs or Nature News. Publishing is broken. Tenure is broken. Peer review is broken. Academia is broken. Reassuringly (I guess), at FiveThirtyEight Christie Aschwanden recently posted a long essay arguing that science isn’t broken. It’s an excellent and persuasive read, but the fact that it exists at all is pretty good evidence that a lot of people think science is broken. It’s not just science, either: Google will return lots of hits for “politics is broken”, “health care is broken”, “the music industry is broken”, and many more. What a broken world, we tell each other, we’re living in!
Why is our discourse so rich in “X is broken”? I think there are two simple reasons, and they’re the same two reasons that bad news dominates the lay media (Nick Kristof makes this point well here). First, it’s easy to write a piece about how horrible something is. Examples of fraudulent papers, deadwood faculty members, and delayed peer reviews are easy to find, because we all love to pass them on when we find them, and moral outrage is easy to muster (after all, these things are indeed bad when they occur). Second, we love to hear or read stories about how horrible something is. Speaking for myself, anyway, a story about a fraudulent paper, a deadwood faculty member, or a delayed peer review leaves me feeling good about myself that I don’t do those things, and deliciously scandalized that other people do. That’s why blog posts (for instance) that decry an injustice or point out a systems failure rack up thousands of page views. It just isn’t as much fun to write, or read, about how the way we do things works pretty well, most of the time. Most papers aren’t fraudulent, most tenured faculty work hard, most peer reviews are on time and helpful. But what’s the fun in that?
Now, I’m not a complete Pollyanna. Science has had enormous success, and it’s great fun to do – but plenty of things about it can still be improved. Science isn’t broken, but parts of it are dented, chipped, or only roughly hewn, and we shouldn’t ignore that. We are far from finished diversifying the community of scientists and removing biases (conscious and unconscious) that affect how we see each other. There are legitimate debates around whether or not we’re overproducing and underpaying graduate students and postdocs. There are problems with our funding models for science, especially for so-called “basic” or “curiosity-driven” research. These issues, and more, deserve our serious attention.
So I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t read the next pronouncement that “Thing X is Broken”. It’s always useful to have a problem (real or perceived) on your radar. But when you do read that next pronouncement, ask yourself three questions. First, is this really a problem at all? Second, if so, how big a problem is it? And third, and most important, do we really need to toss out X and start over, or is there something small I can do to help solve the problem? Perhaps you can take on an extra peer review, or submit your next one more promptly. Perhaps you can mentor an extra underrepresented student. Perhaps you can give a radio interview about the importance of research funding. Despairing that things are “broken” makes us unlikely to take these actions – but I think it’s precisely such incremental but important steps, when they’re taken by each of us and by all of us, that pull science forward.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) October 13, 2015
Related posts (about things I don’t think are broken):