Capitalism Is Ruining Science

Classroom in Cornell University's McGraw Hall, circa 1910. (Cornell University Rare and Manuscript Collections)

By Meagan Day

The university existed before capitalism, and has sometimes resisted obedience to the dictates of the capitalist market, pursuing not profit but truth and knowledge. But capitalism devours what it can, and as it extends its domination, it comes as little surprise that the modern university becomes increasingly subservient to what Ellen Meiksins Wood calls “the dictates of the capitalist market — its imperatives of competition, accumulation, profit-maximization, and increasing labour-productivity.”

In academia, that imperative manifests itself in visible ways: publish or perish, funding or famine.

Without public investment, universities are compelled to play by private sector rules, i.e., to operate like businesses. Businesses, of course, are all about the bottom line — and the health of the bottom line depends on profit maximization, which in turn depends on careful and constant evaluation of inputs and outputs. The result for academic science, according to researchers Marc A. Edwards and Siddhartha Roy in their paper “Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition,” has been the introduction of a new regime of quantitative performance metrics, which governs almost everything scientific researchers do and has observable impacts on their work practices.

These metrics and benchmarks include “publication count, citations, combined citation-publication counts (e.g., h-index), journal impact factors (JIF), total research dollars, and total patents.” Edwards and Roy observe that “these quantitative metrics now dominate decision-making in faculty hiring, promotion and tenure, awards, and funding.” As a result, academic scientists are increasingly driven by a frenzied desire to get their research funded, published and cited. “Scientific output as measured by cited work has doubled every 9 years since about World War II,” note Edwards and Roy.

But quantity does not translate to quality. On the contrary, Edwards and Roy track the effect of quantitative performance metrics on the quality of scientific research and find that it has a detrimental effect. As a result of rewards systems incentivizing publication volume, scientific papers have become shorter and less comprehensive, boasting “poor methods and increase in false discovery rates.” In response to the growing emphasis on work citations in professional evaluations, reference lists have become bloated to meet career needs, with an increasing number of peer reviewers requesting that their own work be cited as a condition of publication.

Meanwhile the system that rewards increased grant funding with more professional opportunities results in scientists spending an outsize amount of time writing grant proposals and overselling the positive results of their research to catch the attention of funders. Likewise, when universities reward departments for ranking highly, departments are incentivized to “reverse engineer, game, and cheat rankings,” eroding the integrity of scientific institutions themselves.

The systemic consequences of increased market pressure on academic science are potentially catastrophic. As Edwards and Roy write, “The combination of perverse incentives and decreased funding increases pressures that can lead to unethical behavior. If a critical mass of scientists become untrustworthy, a tipping point is possible in which the scientific enterprise itself becomes inherently corrupt and public trust is lost, risking a new dark age with devastating consequences to humanity.” In order to maintain credibility, scientists need to maintain integrity — and hypercompetition is eroding that integrity, potentially undermining the entire endeavor.

Furthermore, scientists who are preoccupied chasing grants and citations lose opportunities for careful contemplation and deep exploration, which are necessary to uncover complex truths. Peter Higgs, the British theoretical physicist who in 1964 predicted the existence of the Higgs boson particle, told the Guardian upon receiving the Nobel Prize in 2013 that he would never have been able to make his breakthrough in the current academic environment.

“It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964,” Higgs said. “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough.”

Later in his career Higgs said he became “an embarrassment to the department when they did research assessment exercises.” The physics department at Edinburgh University would send around a message saying, ‘Please give a list of your recent publications.’ … I would send back a statement: ‘None.’” Higgs said the university kept him around despite his insufficient productivity solely in the hopes that he would win the Nobel Prize, which would be a boon to the university in the contemporary sink-or-swim environment.

When the competitive dictates of capitalism — selling your labor if you’re a worker, maximizing profit if you’re a boss — reign over all else, alternative pursuits are inevitably thwarted, no matter how noble. A noble purpose of the science academy, for example, is to provide the resources and encouragement for people to carry out rigorous experiments that will enhance collective knowledge about the world we live in. But those aspirations suffer as austerity-minded administrations stem the tide of federal funding for universities and research, and institutions react by changing their funding models to stay afloat.

Edwards and Roy observe that hypercompetition caused by the proliferation of performance metrics causes academic scientists to emphasize quantity over quality, incentivizes them to cut corners, and selects for the most career-minded rather than science-minded scholars. In short, the dictates of the capitalist market (“competition, accumulation, profit-maximization, and increasing labour-productivity”) hurt scientific integrity and the collective pursuit of knowledge.

Edwards and Roy recommend several reforms, mainly focusing on easing quantitative metrics and preventing research misconduct. But in all likelihood, the problems will continue until the root cause is addressed — that is, until capitalism no longer dominates the university, and the society that sustains it.

* This article was automatically syndicated from Jacobin.

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