Let's Rescue Researchers

By Metta Spencer | 2013-07-01 12:00:00

We were astonished recently to learn from Stephen Pinker that ours is the most peaceful era in human history. But we should not have been surprised, for Thomas Hobbes had pointed out long ago that the primitive state of nature had been a constant “war of all against all,” in which a human life was typically “solitary, poor, nasty, brutal, and short.”

Nature is a wild, violent place—red in tooth and claw—and humankind was not exempt from its tragic limitations. Our progress toward peace has consisted of civilizing ourselves and each other, a project with no end in sight. What aspect of this civilizing process accounts for the taming of our violent ways? How are we gradually reducing violence?

Hobbes proposed this explanation: Our wretched ancestors living in nature formed a contract among themselves, authorizing a sovereign to rule over them absolutely in exchange for security—the protection of their lives and property. To settle issues, someone still has to be in charge, so it is better to have even a bad monarch than none at all. Individuals are wise to submit to their ruler, so long as he effectively suppresses violent factional fights, according to Hobbes.

I prefer a different account of the civilizing process: one proposed by Hannah Arendt, who did not consider it necessary to have a sovereign ruling over us. Instead, as a democratic political philosopher she argued that we maintain social order ourselves by making promises to each other. At the personal level, our contracts are simply the mutual promises of ethical individuals, but over time our agreements create political and legal institutions. Since we need ways of deciding which promises should be enforceable, we rely on these governmental institutions and routines for resolving disputes and charting our collective future. Our democratic society has no sovereign bossing us around; instead, we have institutions for mutually and collectively regulating each another.

Thus the peaceful society is the well-regulated society. However, not all regulations are effective or fair. Earlier human institutions had not been very good at reducing violence, but as Pinker sees it, we are making progress. We develop civilization by improving our institutions, one detail at a time, which every thinking peace activist wants to do. The work is not always dramatic; more often it consists of such mundane tasks as improving the bureaucratic practices of our own work organization. Yet such is the peace work I will be proposing here.

How can you participate in improving our institutions? If you are an average reader of Peace Magazine, you are well-educated, middle aged or older, and with a background in knowledge work. Instead of earning your living by directly handling physical goods such as food, cars, timber, or clothing, you produce and exchange intangible symbols, such as equations, music, film scripts, investment advice, or psychotherapy. Nowadays (thank heavens!) most of us knowledge workers are engaged with ideas instead of physically in manufacturing, extractive industries, or agriculture. Some of us mainly use our imagination to invent artistic creations, whereas other knowledge work involves scholarly or scientific problems requiring study. If you are in the research end of knowledge work, you value coherent reasoning and evidence as essential.

Whether you work in a university, a library, or a laboratory, you follow rules. And gradually, especially in Canada, those institutions have been changing—often in pernicious ways that constrain the production of basic knowledge. We are limited by our institutions, but we are also responsible for creating and changing them. We are democracy’s maintenance crew.

Our most urgent repair job may be to liberate our Canadian colleagues who work for the government. You may know that many federal research centres are being closed and their scientists “muzzled” by the current Conservative government’s explicit science policy. (Many researchers call it instead an anti-science policy since it reflects a philistine misconception of intellectual inquiry.)

Prime Minister Harper understands business very well and he has decided that research must all serve business. But science is not like business. To some extent, technology does resemble business; you have a goal in mind and you tinker until you can produce something that looks like that. But with basic science (including social science) you start with a puzzling question. As a scientist, you’re only as good as the question that you choose to tackle, and the best ones don’t arrive as assignments from your boss. A good puzzle may be, say, a contradiction between two or more theories explaining a given phenomenon, and your research plan may be to disprove one of them with evidence, thus incrementally getting closer to the truth. You’re motivated by your own curiosity and by the puzzles that keep emerging as you knock down theories, one by one, or show that they are somehow compatible after all. The objective is to uncover crucial aspects of reality, just for the sake of knowing.

But later there are almost always practical uses for such discoveries, many of which may have commercial applications. Technological innovations come from basic science, not the other way around. Science policy will fail if it tries to skip the fundamental discovery work and invest entirely in the practical, or if it tries to suppress real facts that are unwelcome. Unfortunately, that is what the current Canadian government is trying to do. It doesn’t matter much whether basic science is done in a government lab or a university; what matters is whether it is free, autonomous work on an interesting puzzle. Of course applied research is necessary too, but some balance is required in supporting the two kinds of science.

Canada Cracks Down on Science

Canada’s government employs thousands of scientists who do not enjoy the same degree of academic freedom as university professors. Every government sets budgets and even its researchers are accountable to the taxpaying public. The question is how to be responsible without requiring basic researchers to take direction from politicians. When the Tories came to power as a minority government in 2006, they began restricting the freedom of inquiry in government-funded research institutions. But empirical knowledge should influence government policy, not vice versa. (“Power corrupts.”) When a government’s economic program is based on suppressing evidence about reality—whether it’s fish diseases or the effect of tar sands on the climate and aquifers—we are in trouble.

One early sign of the U-turn in science policy was Prime Minister Harper’s decision first to ignore the National Science Advisor and then to shut down his office. Next it became apparent that the government was hardly trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—and indeed, Canada soon withdrew from the Kyoto Accord altogether, giving the country a bad reputation around the world. A recent appraisal of environmental performance regarding such factors as air quality and biodiversity showed Canada as 15th among the top 17 most developed nations.

By 2010 the government had decided to replace Statistics Canada’s mandatory, long-form census of 2011 with a voluntary survey. The chief statistician retired in protest, and when the survey results were released this spring, the response rate had declined from the former 94 percent to only 68 percent. All data for a quarter of all Canadian municipalities—especially rural and First Nations communities—were so inadequate that they had to be withheld.

Continuing its cutbacks of agencies that produce uncontrollable empirical evidence, in 2012 the federal government announced reductions totaling $9.6 million to Library and Archives Canada, with 450 staff members being affected. The National Archival Development Program will be closed and thousands of historic documents destroyed. Out of 61 archive workers handling non-governmental records, 21 are losing their jobs, along with 50 percent reductions in the digitization and circulation staff. Jobs in preserving documents are being cut and there will be no more interlibrary loans. Researchers needing to see documents must travel to Ottawa.

There’s more. The Privy Council Office reports that 15,000 public service jobs were eliminated last year, of which 8,000 were full-time employees. According to a Huffington Post report:

“The government has steered arms-length organizations such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) toward industry-related research and away from environmental science .” . . . and “At least 40 federal programs—the bulk of them in fundamental and environmental sciences—have seen their funds slashed, cut off, or in jeopardy, although specifics are difficult to determine because many of the cuts have never been announced.”

Government scientists are no longer permitted to speak to the press on areas of their expertise. For example, at a recent conference I ate lunch with two government scientists while wearing a name tag identifying me as a University of Toronto professor. We chatted about their research until I happened to mention that I am also a journalist writing for a magazine. They suddenly became visibly rattled, explaining apologetically that they could not answer any further questions whatever and would have to refer me to communications officers in their respective departments.

Reducing press access means that the public will be poorly informed. And indeed, Climate Change Network Canada has used Access to Information to obtain internal Environment Canada documents revealing that the number of stories about federal climate change research declined by 80 percent after the access procedures were made more onerous.

Some of the scientific research organizations that are being shut down or defunded are world-renowned, such as the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy; the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences; the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Lab; and the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA). Fortunately, Premier Kathleen Wynne of Ontario has promised to rescue ELA, which is studying the eutrophication of lakes.

The National Research Council (NRC) is being revamped to concentrate on industrial research and business development, rather than basic science. Indeed, as the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has pointed out, every cent of the new funding for Canada’s three granting councils in the 2013 federal budget is dedicated to research partnerships with industry.

Real scientists don’t think this will create more commercial innovation, as Stephen Harper expects. John Polanyi is a Nobel laureate in chemistry who had worked at NRC many years ago. He points out tirelessly that applied research depends on basic science, which must, however, take priority over the practical work done for business enterprises. In a recent Toronto Star op-ed, Polanyi argued, “One should structure things so [scientists] have the freedom and responsibility to provide ideas to industry, not just receive commands….It would be a mistake to think that industry sees ahead to the basic innovations that are going to benefit it. It sees some. But scientists who are in touch with the development of scientific knowledge will see more.”

Many Canadian citizens are appalled by the policies of the ruling party and have begun a campaign to reverse these trends. A poll showed that only 17 percent of the NRC employees believe that the new regulations will steer their organization in the right direction. Various civil society organizations are mobilizing opposition—including CAUT, which will be campaigning across Canada on behalf of the government’s scientists and librarians.

In addition to protesting, scholars can participate by studying science policy and comparing various approaches in modern history. Stephen Harper is not the first politician to have ever suppressed research that might uncover unwelcome evidence against his economic program. George W. Bush also muzzled scientists while he was in the White House, and Vladimir Putin is using similar tactics to stay in the Kremlin. Nor is Putin original; Stalin warped Soviet agriculture by decreeing that only Lysenko’s mistaken genetic theory could be true. Hitler’s unchallenged racist geneticists left a mark on humankind. And Mao ordered all birds to be killed to save China’s crops, denying not only the knowledge of ornithologists but even of peasant farmers. (“Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”) Here’s a great topic for a Ph.D. thesis for a social scientist or historian: What are the consequences of ideologically-driven research regulations?

Regulating Research in Universities

So far I have been discussing the constraints on researchers working for the Canadian government. Their predicaments are especially alarming and urgent, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. Stephen Harper would not dare try to put science to work for industry if the universities had not already been doing so for several years. In fact, I don’t believe we will have any luck opposing that deleterious science policy unless we attack its source in the current market-driven practices of universities. In their search for funding, administrators have been unwittingly promoting deals that may compromise the integrity of research.

The “public-private partnership” model has become normal in academia, and we rarely hear objections to it. Citizens need to learn about the harm being done by routine but barely-recognized restrictions of research in universities, corporate research centers, and donor-funded think tanks. If we object, as we should, to the government’s commercial approach to science, we should also examine the distortions that are no longer rare in the academic world.

Tenured professors are the most secure knowledge workers, owing to the well-established rules of academic freedom, but they cannot always pursue the questions that interest them or disseminate their discoveries as widely as they please.

For space reasons I won’t discuss here the research in privately funded, humanitarian, or corporate settings. Elsewhere, however, I will be interviewing university, government, and private think tank researchers who have been blocked from exploring a question or sharing their answers.

I can immediately think of four ways in which academic research is regularly blocked. These are just my own list, but there may be other issues that perturb you more. To solve my four, we need to ask the following questions:

  1. What are the best procedures for appraising research and researchers?
  2. Does the commercialization of research compromise academic integrity?
  3. What rules restrict the flow of information, and are they ever justifiable?
  4. How can we improve the odds that superior research will be disseminated widely?

1. How to Appraise Research and Researchers

Before beginning a study, academic researchers normally submit a proposal and have it approved. They need funding and they need to pass an ethics review. Their competence must be appraised to determine whether they are reappointed, promoted, given tenure, and paid lavishly or poorly. University personnel are constantly having their work evaluated. However, some methods of appraisal are better than others.

The classical approach is peer-review. A committee is formed of colleagues with relevant expertise to read and critique the proposal or the research report. Unfortunately, there is usually far too much research being produced for peers to read. A lot gets approved or disapproved without having been read carefully. Indeed, even book reviews are sometimes published when the reviewer obviously had barely skimmed the book. Even worse, the reviewer may be a competitor or a theoretical opponent of the person whose work he is reviewing, so the appraisal may be biased.

Nevertheless, peer review is usually a better procedure of evaluation than three other approaches that are sometimes touted as quantifiable, hence “more objective.” These are (a) the number of publications by a researcher, (b) the frequency with which her research has been cited in other publications, or © the amount of grant money she has previously received in competition with other researchers.

These numbers are often taken as indicators of the researcher’s productivity, but they are laughably irrelevant indications of the work’s importance. (You can get a sense of this by Googling your own name and seeing what comes up.) I read a paper recently by a guy who compared the citation index scores for everyone in his department, which included a Nobel prize winner. The laureate had one of the worst scores. Why? He had spent 25 years working on a single important question, while his colleagues had been shoveling out many trivial papers each year.

The quantity of output increasingly trumps quality. If you want to keep an academic job, you have to publish a lot. Most papers used to appear under the name of a single author, but during the past century the number of authors per paper quadrupled. Indeed, a paper on the Large Hadron Collider had 3,000 authors. Why so? Friends help each other’s careers by naming each other as co-author.

The “bean-counting” of publications as a method of evaluating a researcher’s excellence encourages dishonesty. In fact, a co-editor of a book on which I had worked a whole year once stole my work by publishing the collection of papers in her name as sole editor. She needed the citation on her curriculum vitae more than I did. I had assumed that such cheating was rare until I recently spent four days at a conference on research integrity where plagiarism was a major theme. Desperate academics sometimes do desperate things.. But what system of appraisal might be used instead of quantification?

2. Commercialization of Research

This is the most important problem on my list. Canada’s government did not dream up the idea that research should be done jointly by scientists and industry. Universities were already moving in the same direction—especially (but not exclusively) by promoting technological inventions. Many universities hire professional “matchmakers” to arrange contractual partnerships between corporations and scientists and encourage professors to patent their discoveries. (“Who pays the piper calls the tune,” but does this aphorism apply to research findings too?)

The question emerges often when it comes to clinical trials of new pharmaceuticals. A former president of Science for Peace, Nancy Olivieri, has been in litigation for the past 18 years for having disclosed her unfavorable results with a trial drug. Her action put her at odds with the drug company and the University of Toronto, while CAUT has been defending her. The procedures for testing drugs can create conflicts of interest and ethical dilemmas for physicians. What alternative regulations might work better?

Whenever a researcher knows the identity of the private funder of her research, the objectivity of her analysis may be compromised. I recently heard a talk by a Harvard scholar showing that researchers (being only human) tend to “pull their punches” when reporting evidence that their funders will dislike. Even social science studies are affected in this way.

Many years ago at a major US university I worked for a year analyzing a large survey of ethnic discrimination funded by a liberal humanitarian organization. Some evidence almost jumped off the computer print-out, it was so strong, but it was not what anyone wanted to see—not I, nor the funder, nor the director of my project. I was supposed to write a book reporting my discovery and I was willing to do so honestly, though it would have embroiled me in an unpleasant controversy. The director, however, lacked nerve. He re-assigned my writing task to a colleague who produced a book that did not mention my findings at all. It identified me as co-author, but it hid my crucial but disagreeable discoveries. If the grant had come from a state or an anonymous source, I don’t believe that my research would have been censored.

Along with the commercialization tendency, there is a trend toward hiring university administrators whose training is in management, not in the scholarly or scientific field that they will oversee. If an administrator cannot compre- hend a study, she cannot properly evaluate it or the researchers who produce it, so she is more likely to base her evaluations on the quantifiable, “objective” measures criticized above instead of, say, peer review.

What institutional changes may reduce pressure for researchers to please funders by publishing only evidence that they like? Perhaps researchers themselves should choose their administrators.

3. Access to Knowledge

We all consider censorship wrong—and yet we all want some things censored. Even knowledge workers don’t necessarily want our discoveries to be disseminated without restriction. Sometimes secrecy and privacy are justifiable.

For example, there are legitimate restrictions based on intellectual property rights. It seems reasonable to retain industrial secrets and issue patents and copyrights for a period of time so the creators can profit from their inventions, but for how long? Presumably not forever.

Perhaps certain national secrets and weapon designs should never be revealed, though even secrecy may not sustain a country’s military supremacy very long. (The US might have been wiser to put nuclear weapons under international control, as Bernard Baruch proposed, instead of relying on secrecy to stay ahead of the Soviets.)

Today we can detect when a country on the other side of the planet has tested a nuclear weapon; we count on surveillance to save us. On other occasions we find ourselves rooting for secrecy to prevail. For example, the designs for making a gun on a 3-D printer were taken off the Internet quickly, but only after it had been downloaded 100,000 times. I wish such knowledge had been suppressed indefinitely.

Recombinant DNA research is also fraught with risk, and some say it should be entirely forbidden. It is going forward under safety rules that the National Institute for Health defines. The NIH apparently trusts that the knowledge is beneficial enough to justify its risk. That is often, but not always, the case.

Should universities maintain “Freedom of Information” regulations assuring some (perhaps qualified) public access to the findings of their scientists and scholars? If so, what exceptions should be placed on this freedom?

4. The Right to Disseminate Knowledge

I have mentioned the right to access knowledge, but there is also a reciprocal right to disseminate knowledge; it’s the difference between the right to “pull” or “push” information.

A researcher has an ethical obligation to present her findings, but this is not always easy. Research is useful only if someone publishes it and someone else reads it, so reviews and publicity are crucial too. Yet publishing is a business, not a charity and not a human right. Economic principles and the market system, not the universities and think tanks, determine the public distribution of facts. Such a process does not necessarily disseminate knowledge to the ideally appropriate audience.

Scholarly journals are the publications that most influence a researcher’s professional standing, and they are generally edited impartially and fairly. A paper is submitted, its authorship is hidden, and it is sent to professional reviewers who decide whether it is worth publishing. Mutual anonymity of authors and reviewers helps reduce bias. Still, there is distortion. Not all papers are even sent out for review, and we cannot guess how the editors choose the ones to dump into the “round file” straight away.

Book contracts are even more unpredictable. Acceptance is influenced by personal relationships to a degree that would be considered improper in the selection of journal articles. In 2010 there were 328,259 new titles and editions of books published in the United States and in 1996 (the last year for which figures are available) 19,900 new titles were published in Canada. Even so, book publishers are choosy. Almost every new manuscript is submitted to several houses before the author receives an offer—unless she has an editor friend. (Such personal influence is not regarded as corruption but as a perfectly normal way of doing business.)

A book may be classified as a trade book; an academic monograph (typically abstruse and read only by specialists); a textbook (to be adopted as required reading in courses); or a “crossover” book that tries to straddle a dividing line between these categories.

Typically a publishing house brings out a spring and a fall list of new books. Each author names the journals to whom review copies should be sent, and that may be all the publicity the book will get. An editor may pick one book from the fifty or so forthcoming titles and invest all the advertising money on it, ignoring the others completely. However, authors are free to promote their books at their own expense and on their own time, if they so choose.

A textbook is still different. The publisher will typically invest quite a lot in copyediting before bringing it out, and will send representatives and brochures out to instructors who are picking books for their courses. A successful textbook for a popular introductory level course can earn a fortune, so a promising author may be brought to meetings in Florida to schmooze with the representatives before they go on their sales trips. (For many years I helped prepare sales pitches every three years whenever a new edition of my sociology text was brought out.)

On the other hand, a textbook does not win the admiration of the author’s colleagues, who normally don’t consider it real research. A monograph does bring scholarly prestige (if anyone reads it) and a trade book (the kind you see on Chapters Indigo shelves) can also do so, but not if it is too popular, in which case the author may be discounted as an intellectual featherweight.

Bookstore managers have to choose which new books to carry, and often they are influenced by the titles. I once wrote a rather scholarly crossover book about vicarious emotions, but the editor insisted that I put the word “television” into the title, which actually killed sales. Apparently television viewers don’t read and readers aren’t interested in TV. My hiring a publicist did not help.

We wish that both books and journal articles were chosen on the basis of their quality, but that often is not so. The success of a book, especially, is a crapshoot.

The Internet is a blessing, and so is the e-book. Everyone is now able to publish research on a blog, if in no other way. Unfortunately, that innovation is wrecking the publishing industry and making it harder to locate excellent reports. Many print journals still publish reviews and articles, but some researchers are taking the easy route, publishing in evanescent, unrecognized online journals, without having their work scrutinized by competent reviewers. While evading heavy-handed censors, they may also fail to attract the right readers.

Journalists have a few institutional ways of getting around the suppression of their stories. For example, Project Censored is an organization based at a California university that publishes the 25 “most censored” news stories of each year. Academics could create a similar service.

Do researchers need a web site that calls attention to significant knowledge that has been published in obscure places or suppressed by interest groups or politicians?

What Can We Do?

A profession is an occupation that accredits and polices its own members. When academics and scientists fail to monitor their own members’ performances or maintain their professional standards, some other authority (e.g. the state, funding agencies, or hired managers) will do that for them. This is happening to many knowledge workers whose discipline had formerly been a profession. If researchers want to reclaim their professional autonomy, they must take collective responsibility for the conditions of their own employment. They must take charge of their own standards and the regulation of their own work. And soon!

The declining research practices in universities are less scandalous and newsworthy than the muzzling of government scientists, but both issues are interdependent. The regulation of university research has been changing so gradually that it has not seemed alarming—as with the proverbial boiling frog. Now both the urgent and the chronic constraints need to be rectified. This is a job for peace workers. There is a precedent for it.

In 1991 some 23 members of Science for Peace worried because so few of their colleagues in the natural sciences took responsibility for the harmful applications of their discoveries. These conscientious scientists admired Joseph Rotblat, the nuclear physicist who actually quit work on the Manhattan Project because he was ethically opposed to the intended use of an atomic bomb. The Science for Peace members considered devising a “Hippocratic Oath” for all scientists to swear as a condition for admission to their profession.

As a committee they reviewed the issue but concluded that no single oath would suit all scientific disciplines. Instead, they made a list of twelve considerations to be addressed by any code of scientific ethics. They called it “The Toronto Resolution” (online at scienceforpeace.ca/the-toronto-resolution).

Principal Eva Kushner of Victoria University belonged both to that committee and to the Royal Society of Canada. She invited academics from several countries to a conference of the Royal Society on “Constraints on the Freedom of Scholarship and Science.” At the end of it, Science for Peace’s “Toronto Resolution” was made public. It received worldwide press coverage for a while.

This year the same idea re-emerged. Science for Peace decided to revisit the Toronto Resolution, since such innovations as the Internet, genomics, and stem cell research had not existed in 1991. The ethics committee reconvened but discovered that we worry less about the ethical shortcomings of individual scientists now than about the ethical implications of institutional practices, such as the ones mentioned in this paper. Indeed, our concerns are as inclusive as the 1991 Royal Society conference title: “Constraints on the Freedom of Scholarship and Science.” Hence the committee became a working group studying the conditions of “Freedom for Research.”

Over the next several months, this group will examine various institutional practices. We hope to produce a new statement augmenting the Toronto Resolution—but this time as a guideline for research institutions. If implemented by universities and institutes, the guideline may protect the freedom of basic science and scholarship.

We hope that CAUT and the Royal Society (to which several Science for Peace members belong) will participate with us in organizing a new academic conference to re-examine institutional procedures. I will be interviewing scientists and academics about the practices that have hampered their work, and solicit suggestions for improving the regulations and funding practices in universities, private research institutions, and government laboratories.

To consider the commercialization of research further, see a YouTube debate between Professor Matthew Herder of Dalhousie University and Dr. Derek Newton of the University of Toronto. It is presented in four parts, of which I think parts two and three are especially convincing. (Visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=efUvhcmM9KI for part 1.)

You may want to read CAUT’s web page, post your comments on the Peace Magazine web site, or just email me at mspencer@web.net. By building institutions that foster freedom of inquiry and professional self-regulation, we are building democracy and peace.

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2013

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2013, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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