Lack Of Risk-Taking In Scientific Research Is Hurting Progress

The system for deciding which scientists get secure jobs is undermining creativity and making it difficult for scientists to shake up their field. Credit: Bangkokhappiness/Shutterstock

Scientific knowledge is being hobbled by scientists choosing excessively safe topics, according to two new papers, and as a result transformative discoveries are being delayed. More efficient inquiry may require changing scientists' reward system, as currently lower-risk research is often more incentivized than higher-risk work.

"[Scientists] can consolidate knowledge clusters or bridge them," an American Sociology Review (ASR) paper notes. Both are essential, but the paper, and another in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), provides evidence we are getting the balance wrong, at least in the one field the authors managed to study: biochemistry.

"The idea here was really to figure out how much scientific activity is innovative and changes the contours of the field, and how much is traditional and reinforces established understandings," said Dr. James Evans of the University of Chicago in a statement. "The institutions of science reward scientists for incrementally extending existing knowledge, even in the face of exploding opportunities. We find that this leads to inefficient exploration of the space of discoveries, especially as fields mature."

Evans tested the balance of these two research styles by mapping 6.4 million papers reporting on the relationships between significant molecules. Some papers broke new ground by establishing connections between molecules previously thought unrelated, while others linked those that were already part of an associated cluster. While the former adds far more to our understanding of the world, the latter is a better career bet. As the ASR paper points out, "An innovative publication is more likely to achieve high impact than a conservative one, but the additional reward does not compensate for the risk of failing to publish."

The ASR study found that research confirming already established connections is six times as common as work that might carve out new territory. "Scientists can often get trapped by concentrating on a small part of the network and spending large amounts of resources trying to solve the same problem," said co-author Professor Andrey Rzhetsky

The PNAS paper, meanwhile, found that scientific advance is most efficient when research starts out conservative and gradually becomes more ambitious as the low-hanging fruit is picked up. Sadly, this is the reverse of what usually happens.

Biochemistry, and probably as yet unmeasured fields as well, would progress faster with more ambition, but it is clear why scientists mostly choose to go with the flow rather than challenge established orthodoxy or explore uncharted territory. Long-shot projects more often prove to be dead ends than something big. At least when working in well-studied areas, researchers are likely to publish a paper at the end.

Previous suggestions that promotions based on publication numbers – rather than quality or accuracy – are undermining science stem from the observation that spending time on a high-risk/high-return idea that ends up coming to nothing is a great way to end up unemployed. These studies provide evidence to support the suspicions and anecdotal evidence that have fed these concerns. 

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