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Nobel Laureate Sydney Brenner on Contemporary Big Science as a “Regression to the Mean”

David Klinghoffer

In today’s world of Big Science, resistance to new ideas about evolution is rooted partly in ideology, partly in concerns about personal status, and partly in the nature of the contemporary research industry, with its perverse incentives to adhere to orthodoxy. The last of these is the subject of candid remarks in the online King’s Review magazine from University of Cambridge geneticist Sydney Brenner, a 2002 Nobel laureate (in Physiology or Medicine). He wasn’t talking about evolution but we’re free to apply what he says as appropriate.

Reporter Elizabeth Dzeng summarizes Brenner’s importance:

It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of Professor Brenner and his colleagues’ contributions to biology. Brenner won the Nobel Prize for establishing Caenorhabditis elegans, a type of roundworm, as the model organism for cellular and developmental biological research, which led to discoveries in organ development and programmed cell death. He made his breakthroughs at the [Laboratory of Molecular Biology], where beginning in the 1950s, an extraordinary number of successive innovations elucidated our understanding of the genetic code.

One thing’s for sure: Brenner gives an excellent, peppery interview. He’s very down on peer review:

And of course all the academics say we’ve got to have peer review. But I don’t believe in peer review because I think it’s very distorted and as I’ve said, it’s simply a regression to the mean.

I think peer review is hindering science. In fact, I think it has become a completely corrupt system. It’s corrupt in many ways, in that scientists and academics have handed over to the editors of these journals the ability to make judgment on science and scientists. There are universities in America, and I’ve heard from many committees, that we won’t consider people’s publications in low impact factor journals.

Now I mean, people are trying to do something, but I think it’s not publish or perish, it’s publish in the okay places [or perish]. And this has assembled a most ridiculous group of people. I wrote a column for many years in the nineties, in a journal called Current Biology. In one article, "Hard Cases", I campaigned against this [culture] because I think it is not only bad, it’s corrupt. In other words it puts the judgment in the hands of people who really have no reason to exercise judgment at all. And that’s all been done in the aid of commerce, because they are now giant organisations making money out of it. 

He paints a grim picture of academic science:

Today the Americans have developed a new culture in science based on the slavery of graduate students. Now graduate students of American institutions are afraid. He just performs. He’s got to perform. The post-doc is an indentured labourer. We now have labs that don’t work in the same way as the early labs where people were independent, where they could have their own ideas and could pursue them.

The most important thing today is for young people to take responsibility, to actually know how to formulate an idea and how to work on it. Not to buy into the so-called apprenticeship. I think you can only foster that by having sort of deviant studies. That is, you go on and do something really different. Then I think you will be able to foster it.

But today there is no way to do this without money. That’s the difficulty. In order to do science you have to have it supported. The supporters now, the bureaucrats of science, do not wish to take any risks. So in order to get it supported, they want to know from the start that it will work. This means you have to have preliminary information, which means that you are bound to follow the straight and narrow. 

There’s no exploration any more except in a very few places.

The dominant force is the committee, where "Nothing happens because the committee is a regression to the mean, and the mean is mediocre."

Big Science as a system designed to safeguard "mediocrity," intellectual "slavery" infused with fear, where "exploration," "deviant studies" or anything "really different" are discouraged if not forbidden, where orthodoxy is defined by "a most ridiculous group of people," and the development of fresh perspectives is "hampered" by peer review, a calcified guarantee not of quality but of a "regression to the mean" — these are all things that Darwin skeptics and intelligent-design advocates have been saying for years.

H/t to Denyse O’Leary at Uncommon Descent, who points out that Brenner is only the latest Nobelist in recent months to sound the alarm on this theme, decrying what Randy Schekman (2013, Physiology or Medicine) calls the "tyranny of the luxury journals."

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