covid-19 vaccine coronavirus test lab
(Image: AAP/Dan Himbrechts)

Scientists are riding high at present. Trust in science looks to have risen on the coattails of medical science during the COVID-19 crisis.

But while many international studies and polls show growing public trust in science, another suggests trust in individual scientists will fall.  

It may be too early to tell — trust will depend in large part on whether measures like distancing and quarantine do actually work in the long run. 

During this science week, which ends Sunday, August 23, some peak bodies have gone hard on the COVID-19 angle. Science and Technology Australia headlines “STEM experts guiding Australia’s COVID-19 success …” who “help the nation and humanity in our hours of greatest need”.

This adds to the framing of the pandemic as war, justifying extreme measures and technocratic solutions. It will play well with those Australians who share that view while excluding others. It is a hostage to the future if measures advocated by public health experts turn out poorly. 

The Australian Academy of Science is more balanced. While it had one COVID-related publicity stunt, its overall take on Science Week was diverse. Its stories for the week include marine biology, astrophysics, birds, bees, artificial intelligence and the environment, among others. 

This seems wise. Although there are signs of a turnaround in the long-term trend of declining trust in all institutions — a turnaround also enjoyed by politicians and the media — at the same time science is in crisis.

Universities, where most Australian science is done, are facing unprecedented financial pressure due to the collapse in international student numbers. Many young scientists in casual positions are out of work. International collaboration, although partly manageable at a distance, will also suffer.

But problems run deeper than the present crisis.

Bad research infests science faculties. It is not common, but occurs often enough to discredit the entire endeavour. In some disciplines bad research is merely embarrassing. In science, bad research — like discredited studies on vaccine dangers — can cost lives.

Much of science, including medical research, faces a replicability crisis: that is, studies producing results that follow-up experiments cannot duplicate.

This casts doubt on the original findings. Were they perhaps invented for the purposes of obtaining a publication rather than being based in reality?

Both the replication problem and fraudulent articles stem from the same root cause — the pressure on researchers to publish. An article with interesting and exciting results is much more likely to be accepted. 

Not surprisingly, academics are therefore tempted to embellish their findings to make them more unusual and noteworthy. It is to the credit of science training that not more researchers do so, given their prospects for pay and advancement depend so much on their publication record.

But it is a real problem for research. There is now a growing movement for creation of journals dedicated specifically for replication studies, repeats of past experiments to prove them.   

The pressure to publish is a particular problem for Australia because many researchers are judged on the quality of the journal in which they publish. Quality rankings are subjective and favour “international” (largely American) journals.

Some articles don’t relate to particular countries (distant nebulae, a deep ocean trench, a mathematical proof) and can be published anywhere. But where research is Australian-based it runs a risk of being rejected by an overseas journal.

The confluence of fundamental problems with the COVID-19 moment creates a unique opportunity for a fundamental rethink in the way Australia funds and supports scientific research.

There are many possible options: remove pressure to publish; reward Australian relevance; give replication the same standing as original studies; replace “peer” review by cronies with review by trusted experts; allocate grants randomly among all applications that meet basic quality standards; give more research funding direct to universities instead of through the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council (or, vice versa, increase the power of the these bodies to set research priorities); require applications for research grants to be much briefer; make citation of fraudulent research an offence. 

There are numerous options, some better, some worse, worth considering.

What is needed now is a mechanism to crystallise discussions already widespread among both scientists and public policy makers.

It would be just as much a mistake to leave this to science as it would be to leave it to government to solve. We need independent and rigorous analysis.

It would make a good Productivity Commission inquiry. If inter-disciplinary rivalry between scientists and economists makes the commission a non-viable route, an independent inquiry would be an alternative way to gather our thoughts on how to solve the crisis.

However it is done, don’t waste the opportunity.

Science delivers huge benefits in science week and any other week. It can be even better if freed from perverse incentives and misdirected institutional pressures.