A Scientific Bubble

A Scientific Bubble

By Jesús Salgado
Posted 21 Set 2015 | 18:48 GMT

The term bubble is used in Economics, referring to a state in which the operating value of things grows largely over their real or intrinsic value. Economic bubbles are common in speculative markets and are characterized by a booming phase which eventually ends up with a crash or bust phase, as it has happened repeatedly with housing, financial and stock markets. Applying the term to Science would, of course, be metaphoric. Although Science is an important part of Economy, it is not ruled directly by market laws and cannot easily be valued in terms of a “price”. Admitting this differences, however, we can find multiple analogies in support of the scientific bubble which may help us understand what is happening today with Science and try to foresee its future.

Who is pumping the Bubble?

We can first recognize that the undoubtful growth of Science in the last decades has characteristics of a booming phase. On the other hand, in qualitative terms, one can identify a booming growth of the value of Science, as a key element for the economical progress of companies, regions and countries. In both cases it is possible to appreciate that the growth is pumped by a positive feedback mechanisms, like in any classical economic bubble. But, where does the positive feedback come from?

As we cannot talk here about price of specific Science objects, the booming growth of Science can be identified indirectly from the growth of research institutes, scientists and scientific production. This world-wide growth has been fuelled by increasing investment, supported by the general believe that Science is the base (and warranty) of progress. The scientific revolution experienced globally after the end of the second world war, and the accompanying technological revolution, with impacting discoveries and inventions which have changed our lives, are proofs of the key role of Science. I will not at all limit the capital importance of Science in Society, which is unquestionable. However, there are reasons to question the given value against the real value of such an importance of Science.

As Science becomes a key element for the human progress, it also becomes a key factor for Economy, and thus is more and more influenced by market forces. In parallel, Science has been moved to fuse with Technology, increasing its weight as an economic factor. The aims of Science are thus pushed further from discovery, to reach invention. ie., Science is pushed to create products with a market value. This alone explains how Science, which is in principle outside the speculative market economy, may end up experiencing a booming phase: The scientific bubble would just be part of the innovation economy bubble, indirectly pumped by the same positive feedback mechanisms.

But the case of Science is special and incorporates other pumping mechanisms. Most Science projects work like autonomous entities, directed by a Principal Investigator (PI), whose immediate products are mainly publications and occasionally patents. In any case, productivity is measured essentially in terms of numbers of such products, and the value of them depends mainly on weak evaluation methods, inherited from classical Science (see a discussion about evaluation in the next section). Because the prestige and funding of the PI and of the host Institution depend almost exclusively on such an assessment, the temptation (and danger) to find easy ways of improving the evaluation results is high. The immediate consequence is an over-increase of numbers (specially of publications) and a harsh competition to publish in reputed journals, both impacting on the quality of Science (see below). These creates obvious positive feedback forces, independent from the market, but which blow strongly within the scientific bubble. Additionally, because the same type of evaluation determines the assignment of positions and projects, the production booming is accelerated strongly as an inflated number of young Scientists compete for a few PI positions, and a large crowd of PIs compete to obtain funding.

Evalution: Quality vs Quantity, Substance vs Form

As discussed above, the value of Scientific products is critical to determine excellence and is used to assign positions and funding (of individuals and institutions) in a very competing environment. Apart from economical implications (more or less clear, depending on the case), the value of most immediate scientific products is not commercial and cannot be assigned by the market. This value must be a measure of their quality.

It can be argued that the evaluation of Science has not adapted to the enormous changes suffered during the last decades, and assessments are made essentially using the same classical strategies and methods developed before the scientific / technological revolution. The end products of Science are, in the large majority of cases, “publications”, which are valued by counting their numbers, weighted by an impact factor. To a smaller extent, and specially after the de facto fusion with Technology, the number of patents is also considered. With this system, the main (in most cases the only) indicator of quality is the impact factor of scientific journals where the work is published, which has a number of perverse consequences. First, the article reviewing process becomes extraordinarily important. However, nothing has been made to adapt reviewing to that high responsibility(1). Second, excellence ends up being identified with publishing in a short list of high impact, generalistic, scientific journals. Apart from the huge power that this gives to a handful of journals, whose police may de facto condition the global development of Science, it has the danger to focus Science towards the most shiny and potentially popular fields, which does not seem to be an appropriate definition of quality. And third, the urge to increase the publication number, and to select preferentially the most attractive aspects (at any price?) can reduce the overall quality of published work. Poor quality signs are already being detected in the form of very low rates of reproducibility and alarming missuse of methods(2).

Will the bubble explode?

Economical bubbles are most clearly identified after they reach a conclusive burst phase. Will that ever happen to Science? I do not dare to extend the analogy so far as to predict a catastrophic crash: I have no idea if that can be a realistic scenario, how and when could that happen and which would be the consequences. However, I do believe that the scientific bubble analogy helps understanding some negative characteristics of modern Science and should call for action to fix them. Even with assured resistance against a bubble burst, Science and Scientists would be much more comfortable in a near-equilibrium state than under continuous uncontrolled growing. In order to approach that equilibrium, the classical structures of Science should adapt to the global, fast changing world. Most urgently, we should find a satisfactorial solution to the evaluation problem, with the strongest accent in quality, more than quantity and substance, more than form, and which counts real discoveries instead of just publications. This is the minimum requirement to guaranty a fair assessment of excellence in Science.

(1)It is not my intention to comment here about the specific problems of peer reviewing. I just add that this aspect is one of the most actively debated topics about the present and future of Science.

(2)For collection of articles and commentaries dealing with the alarming problem of irreproducible Science see the Nature special “Challenges in irreproducible research” (http://www.nature.com/news/reproducibility-1.17552).

Jesús Salgado is a professor of Biochemistry and molecular Biology at the University of Valencia (Spain). He has performed research in a broad range of topics, ranging from metallo-proteins, at the beginning of his carrier, to membrane proteins. His most recent interest is in membrane pores induced by peptides and proteins and connected to mechanisms of cell death. He is founder and editor of “Biofísica”, the magazine of the Spanish Biophysical Society.