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What the March for Science Is Really About: Your Money

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In tomorrow’s March for Science, many will march out of the sense of amorphous, infantile left-wing discontent that has driven violence, screaming, and censorship on university campuses lately. But those won’t be the actual scientists in the protest, who will no doubt be a minority.

What do scientists participating in the event want? As expressed by the organizers, many of their goals are vague or unobjectionable. When you come right down to it, what they want above all is your money.

Writing in the Washington Times, Discovery Institute biologist Jonathan Wells casts an unsentimental eye on these motivations. More research funding sounds nice, but in fact it does the search for truth no favors:

Organizers describe the Washington march as “a call to support and safeguard the scientific community. Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists.” In this atmosphere “it is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.” But unlike the imaginary Moscow marchers in 1950, the Washington marchers are risking nothing more than a few blisters. Scientists in America today are a privileged class. American taxpayers support them with billions of dollars every year.

Take, for example, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). The current NIH budget is $32.3 billion, all of it from taxpayers. The Trump administration proposes to reduce that amount, though the decision is up to Congress. A scientist quoted in a recent article in The Atlantic says the proposed reduction would “bring American biomedical science to a halt.” But the NIH budget has been reduced several times in the past eight years without that happening.

The 2017 March for Science is not about protecting experimental science, which is in no danger — at least, no danger from the U.S. government. It’s about pressuring lawmakers to vote for more money.

But throwing more money at the NIH may not be such a good idea. Science journalist Paul Voosen wrote in 2015 that “science today is riven with perverse incentives,” most of them financial. Universities and financing agencies reward scientists based on their publication records. This encourages the submission of results that have not been carefully checked and often cannot be replicated. Mr. Voosen quoted biologist Arturo Casadevall: “Scientists themselves are playing this game because once they succeed, the rewards are so great they basically force everyone to do it.”

The result has been a dramatic rise in the number of scientific papers retracted because of shoddy work. In 2011, Nature assistant editor Richard Van Noorden reported that “in the past decade, the number of retraction notices has shot up 10-fold, even as the literature has expanded by only 44 percent.” In 2016, scientists Paul Smaldino and Richard McElreath called this “the natural selection of bad science.” They wrote that “selection for high output leads to poorer methods and increasingly high false discovery rates.”

According to Mr. Voosen, solving the problem will require changing “an entire scientific culture.” Scientists would do better to focus on reforming their discipline rather than marching for more money.

Yep. Dr. Wells is the author of the new book Zombie Science: More Icons of Evolution which, while focusing on one particular controversial issue, is ultimately a call for reforming science. (See my review here.)

But supporters of the March, as you can imagine, do not want to hear that message. Like so much in our culture, it’s an event driven by the will to feel special and to be rewarded — with taxpayer money — in the process.

Image: © Mavka — stock.adobe.com.