The need for change in the governance of science

Tomorrow, a two-day conference will be held, Science in Transition, at the beautiful headquarters of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Trippenhuis in Amsterdam. Five researchers with backgrounds in medical research, history, and science & technology studies, have taken the lead in what they hope will become a strong movement for change in the governance of science and scholarship. The conference tomorrow builds on a series of three workshops held earlier this year about “image and trust”, “quality and corruption”, and “communication and democracy”. On the eve of the conference, the initiators published their agenda for change. In this document, 7 issues are defined as key topics and a large number of questions about the necessary direction for change are formulated. These issues are: the image science has in the public view; public trust in science; quality control; fraud and deceit; new challenges in science communication; the relationship between science, democracy and policy; and the connection between education and research.

With this list, the agenda is rather encompassing and broad. The thread running through the document as well as through the supporting “position paper” is discontent with the current governance of the scientific and scholarly system. The position paper is strong in that it is based on the professional experience of the authors, some of whom have been leading and managing research for many years. At the same time, this is also the source of some obvious weaknesses. The situation in the medical sciences is here and there a bit too dominant in the description of reality in science, whereas the situation in the humanities and social sciences is rather different (although equally problematic). Because the agenda is so broad, the position paper in its current version tends to lump together problems of quite different sources as if they are all of a kind. The subtleties that are so important in the daily practices of scientists and scholars tend to disappear from view. But then again, some of this may be inevitable if one wishes to push an agenda for change. A quite strong feature of the position paper is that it does not try to justify or deny the problematic aspects of science (of which fraud and corruption are only the most visible forms) but attempts to confront them head-on.

This is the reason that I think Science in Transition is an excellent iniatiative which deserves strong support from all participants and users in the current system of knowledge creation. Certainly in the Netherlands, which is the focus of most experiences the initiative builds on, but also more globally, the current ways of governing the increasingly complex scientific system hit their limits. Let me focus on the matter of quality control, the issue with which we deal regularly in this blog. The peer review system is straining under increasing pressure. Data intensive research requires new forms of data quality control that are not yet in place. Fraudulent journals have become a major source of profit for shady publishers. Open access of both publications and research data is increasingly needed, but at the same time it threatens to introduce corrupt business models in science and may harm the publication of books in the humanities (if not done carefully). Simplified but easily accessible indicators, such as the h-index and the Journal Impact Factor, have in many biomedical fields acquired the mantle of a goal in itself. Editors of journals feel pressured to increase their impact factor in sound and less sound ways. The economics of science is dominated by a huge supply of easily replaceable temporary labour force and for many PhD students there is no real career possibility in meaningful research. Peer review tends to favour methodological soundness above scientific or societal relevance. The publicly funded budgets are not always sufficient to perform the research as thoroughly as is needed. The current publication cultures tend to prefer positive results over negative ones (especially dangerous in the context of pharmaceutical research).

I realize that this short summary of some of the better known problems is as generalizing as the position paper. Of course, these problems are not acute in every field. Some journals are not afflicted with impactitis, but manage to focus on pushing the research front in their area. Universities behave differently in the ecology of higher education and research. Many researchers are delivering a decent or excellent performance. Scientific specialties differ strongly in epistemic styles as well as in publication cultures. And the solutions are certainly not easy. Nevertheless, the governance of science requires some fundamental adaptations, including a possible revision of the role of universities and other institutions of higher education. Science in Transition deserves to be applauded for having put this complex problem forcefully on the agenda.

I am also enthusiastic about the project because it resonates so well with the research agenda of CWTS. We have even created a new working group which focuses on the detailed, ethnographic, study of actual evalution practices in science and scholarship: EPIC (evaluation practices in context). We need to have a much more detailed understanding of what actually goes on in the laboratories, hospitals, and research institutes at universities. This is the only way we can supplement generalizing and normative statements about trends in scientific governance with “thick descriptions” of the complex reality of current science.

The more complex the research system has become, the more important quantitative information, including indicators, is for the researchers, research managers and science policy makers. This requires more advanced methodologies in the field of scientometrics (and not only in bibliometrics), such as science mapping, the topic of another CWTS working group. It requires more accurate data collection, including better accounting systems of the costs of scientific research. (Currently, universities actually do not know how much their research actually costs.) But it also requires vigilance against “management by indicators”. If young PhD students aim to publish mainly in order to increase their performance indicators so that they can have a career, as many a senior researcher in a hospital has experienced, we know that the system is in trouble.

Accounting systems are sometimes certainly necessary, but these should be put in place in such a way that they do not derail the primary processes (such as knowledge creation) that they are supposed to support. In the scientific system in the Netherlands, we therefore need a renewed balance between performance measurement and expert judgement in the quality control mechanisms. This is what we mean with our new CWTS motto: meaningful metrics. The future of scientometrics is not in the production of ever more indicators, but in more effectively supporting researchers in their endeavour to create new knowledge.

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2 Responses to “The need for change in the governance of science”

  1. The need for change in the governance of science – II | The Citation Culture Says:

    […] We already blogged about some of the most problematic aspects of current quality control mechanisms last week. Interestingly, there was remarkable consensus among conference participants on a number of points […]

  2. The new Dutch research evaluation protocol | The Citation Culture Says:

    […] to the increased anxiety about “perverse effects” in the research system triggered by the ‘Science in Transition’ group and to recent cases of scientific fraud. The Dutch minister of education, culture and the […]


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