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We asked hundreds of scientists what they’d change about science. Here are 33 of our favorite responses.

In a variety of ways, scientists feel their careers are being hijacked by perverse incentives.
Annette Elizabeth Allen

We recently asked scientists a simple question: If you could change one thing about how science works today, what would it be and why?

We heard back from 270 scientists around the world, including graduate students, senior professors, laboratory heads, and Fields Medalists. And they told us that in a variety of ways, they feel their careers are being hijacked by perverse incentives.

You can read all about what they told us — and how these problems in science can be fixed — in our feature. As a bonus, here are some of our favorite responses to the survey.


Academia has a huge money problem

"How about fixing the way food companies fund research in food and nutrition. With funding from NIH, USDA, and foundations so limited, pressures from FDA to provide research to back of health claims, and demands from universities for partnerships with industry, researchers feel obligated — or willingly seek — food industry support. The frequent result? Conflicts of interest. I'd like to see federal agencies increase their support for studies of nutrition and health. Short of that, food companies could pool their research funds and create an independent commission to issue requests for proposals and make funding decisions based on scientific merit." —Marion Nestle, food politics professor, New York University

"Bitter competition [for grant money] leads to group leaders working desperately to get any money just to avoid closing their labs, submitting more proposals, overwhelming the grant system further. It's all kinds of vicious circles on top of each other." —Maximilian Press, graduate student in genome science, University of Washington.

"In Australia we estimated ... the country's researchers collectively spend 600 years every year on lengthy [grant] applications, the majority of which are rejected. Imagine how much more research we could get done if this time were halved." —Adrian Barnett, professor of public health, Queensland University of Technology

"The current system of competitive application for funding means that a vast amount of time (and therefore money) is wasted by academics writing unsuccessful funding applications. It's also something of a lottery, and it's unfair since someone who wins the lottery once has a better chance of doing so again next time." —Paul Matthews, professor of applied mathematics, University of Nottingham

"The pressure to publish is increased because of the requirement for professors to bring in ‘soft money’ to cover their own salary. This pressure to publish creates the demand that allows predatory journals to grow. It creates greater conflicts of interest and bias that may lead to unintentional, or even intentional, research misconduct and contributes to the replication problem. When funding and pay structures are stacked against academic scientists, these problems are all exacerbated." —Alison Bernstein, postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience, Emory University

Too many studies are poorly designed

"Is the point of research to make other professional academics happy, or is it to learn more about the world?" —Noah Grand, sociology professor, University of California Los Angeles

"Most papers are generated for advancement of careers rather than advancement of human knowledge." —Joseph Hyder, professor of anesthesiology, Mayo Clinic

"Novel information trumps stronger evidence which sets the parameters for working scientists." —Jon-Patrick Allem, postdoctoral social scientist, Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California

"We need to make it normal to pre-register your methods and analytic strategy before you begin your research. We need to recognize academic journals for what they are: shop-windows for incomplete descriptions of research, that make semi-arbitrary editorial [judgments] about what to publish, and often have harmful policies that restrict access to important post-publication critical appraisal of published research. We need to ensure that researchers publish their full methods, results, analytic code, and data, regardless of what results they get, in open online repositories. And we need to ensure that this information is properly indexed and discoverable, alongside reviews, critiques, expansions and suggestions contributed by peers, no matter who made them, and no matter what or where those criticisms may be." —Ben Goldacre, epidemiology researcher, physician, and author

"The essence of scientific research is in the freedom to pursue the unknowns, regardless of whether the data produces positive or negative correlations or results. Instead, the focus now is entirely on producing and reporting positive data with significant p-values." —Roshni Ravindranathan, oncolytic virotherapy lab manager, University of Pittsburgh

"Science is a human activity and is therefore prone to the same biases that infect almost every sphere of human decision-making." —Jay Van Bavel, psychology professor, New York University

"The discussion about [failures in] science right now is, for lack of a better term, very scientific. We’re talking about it in terms of effect sizes and p-values, but we’re not talking about what does it mean to fail as a scientist." —Kathryn Bradshaw, counseling psychology graduate student, University of North Dakota.

Replicating results is crucial — and rare

"Replication studies should be incentivized somehow, and journals should be incentivized to publish ‘negative’ studies. All results matter, not just the flashy, paradigm shifting results." —Stephanie Thurmond, biology graduate student, University of California Riverside

"Some (but certainly not all) lab heads will only accept positive data, since during their time as a graduate student or postdoc they were able to generate reams of positive data which lead them to run their own lab. This may lead some scientists in training down a morally dark path where results are fudged, and everyone loses." —Daniel Rios, postdoctoral researcher in immunology, Emory University

"Solve publication bias. By only sharing positive results, we waste tax money, and create a literature that is not representative of the truth. As long as there is publication bias, many areas of research do not provide quantitative knowledge." —Daniel Lakens, psychology professor, Eindhoven University of Technology

Peer review is broken

"I think peer review is, like democracy, bad, but better than anything else." —Timothy Bates, psychology professor, University of Edinburgh

"It is incredible that, while we correctly advocate for the highest level of transparency in publishing, we still have most reviews that are blinded, and I cannot know who is reviewing me." —Lamberto Manzoli, epidemiology and public health professor, University of Chieti

"Science is fluid; publishing isn't. It takes forever for research to make it to print, there is little benefit to try and replicate studies or publish insignificant results, and it is expensive to access the research." —Amanda Caskenette, aquatic science biologist, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

"Make the peer review system truly double blind. Editors have too much power to accept marginal papers from members of their own cabal." —Brian K. Miller, professor, management, Texas State University

"I would strengthen and democratize the peer review process, beginning with screening proposals for funding, and then screening articles at the time of submission for publication." —Robert Brian Haynes, health sciences professor, McMaster University

"The scientific publishing field acts like there is no internet. The scientific paper peer- review takes forever and this hurts the scientists who are trying to put their results quickly into the public domain." — Lakshmi Jayashankar, a senior scientific reviewer with the federal government

Too much science is locked behind paywalls

"My problem is one that many scientists have: It's overly simplistic to count up someone's papers as a measure of their worth." —Lex Kravitz, investigator, neuroscience of obesity, National Institutes of Health

"I personally spend a lot of time writing scientific Wikipedia articles because I believe that advances the cause of science far more than my professional academic articles." —Ted Sanders, magnetic materials PhD student, Stanford University

"Academia is willfully secretive. Knowledge cannot develop without exchange of ideas, and ideas cannot be evaluated without full disclosure. Researchers need to be required to make all of their work transparent." —Chris Sampson, postgraduate researcher in health economics, University of Nottingham

"Eliminate subscription-based journals, moving all to a free, internet-only formats like PLoS. Major journals still rely on volunteers from academia to review and edit submitted papers, they pay nothing for this. Eliminating paper publishing would remove most of the costs associated with publishing the journal and allow this economically. " —John A Wilk, PhD student, evolution, University of Illinois Chicago

"Having journal articles be the primary avenue of scientific communication leads to slow iteration times, laborious back and forths, and a reification of published findings into ‘facts.’ Scientific discovery needs to be communal — papers should be the start of a conversation, where exploring different assumptions and different approaches to [analysis] is easy, open, and fast." —Nate Delaney-Busch, postdoctoral scholar, cognitive neuroscience, Tufts University

Science is poorly communicated

"Being able to explain your work to a non-scientific audience is just as important as publishing in a peer-reviewed journal, in my opinion, but currently the incentive structure has no place for engaging the public." —Crystal Steltenpohl, PhD student in community psychology, DePaul University

"Far too often, there are less than 10 people on this planet who can fully comprehend a single scientist's research." —Michael Burel, PhD student in stem cell biology, New York University School of Medicine

"In the age of the internet and its massive demand for new content, there is huge pressure for journalists who cover science to turn every scientific findings into a ‘big idea’ that will immediately change people's lives. It is almost never the case that any single program of research will do that, and these types of insights or discoveries accumulate over many years." —Daniel Molden, psychology professor, Northwestern University

"I, like many scientists, have dedicated my life to a relatively low paying field with an extensively long and poorly paid training process because I fundamentally believe in the ability of science to transform the health and lives of people.... But then I look at how science is communicated to the public, and at the number of people who believe things that have no scientific support, and it sort of makes me wonder why I would do this at all." —Clare Malone, postdoctoral fellow in cancer therapeutics, Brigham and Women's Hospital/Harvard Medical School

Life as a young academic is incredibly stressful

"I was surprised to find that undergraduate students at my institution often ‘volunteer’ in laboratories. Sometimes this is under the guise of an equal trade — the graduate student or (very rarely) the faculty member spends time training the undergraduate students, and the undergraduates in turn gets this knowledge and a line on their CV that associates them with a laboratory. However, these volunteers are often not compensated academically for their work via course credit or authorship while they performing jobs that hourly workers get paid for." —Laura Weingartner, evolutionary ecologist

"End the PhD or drastically change it. There is a high level of depression among PhD students. Long hours, limited career prospects, and low wages contribute to this emotion." —Don Gibson, PhD student in plant genetics, University of California Davis

"I would modify evaluation processes (grants, manuscripts, selection of faculty job interviewees, graduate school admissions) so that they are blind with respect to gender, ethnicity and institutional affiliation. There is substantial bias against women and ethnic minorities, and blind experiments have shown that removing names and institutional affiliations can radically change important decisions that shape the careers of scientists." —Terry McGlynn, professor of biology, California State University Dominguez Hills

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