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Scientists Gloomy

Entry 1161, on 2010-02-17 at 21:34:55 (Rating 3, Science)

Most people would say that science is an important part of modern society. Some (including me) would say its the most important. Anyone who disagrees with this should give up the technology they use which is based on scientific discoveries: modern medicine, the internet, communications, etc, and then think again.

Because its so important its concerning that a recent study shows most scientists in New Zealand are very pessimistic about the profession and their future. Less than half would recommend science as a career to young people.

Its not that there's anything wrong with science itself, its more that the paper work and competition for research money is dragging them down, accountability practices are a waste of time, and professional managers are in charge of something they don't understand.

This seems to reflect what I see around me. There's no doubt that the system for funding is ridiculously inefficient. Why pay these science experts to create funding applications (which are to a large extent a load of propaganda and politically correct garbage anyway) when they could be doing their real job instead? If anyone calculated how much it costs in time and salaries to administer I bet a lot of new research projects could be funded instead.

And even if the effort could be justified it seems that scientists have little faith in the process. Over a third have said it would be fairer to run a lottery! That's right, they think just choosing which study to fund at random would be better than going through the current process. Actually its not a bad idea because it would cut down on the paper work and ensure a good, randomised mix of studies were selected.

And no one likes to be micromanaged by an ignorant manager (and most of them are). Running research instituions like companies and having professional managers in charge is surely the best way to ensure a mediocre scientific outcome.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Prominent New Zealand scientists Paul Callaghan says he has no sympathy for the science community and no one has right to taxpayer money without going through a competitive process. But Callaghan doesn't seem to have done any science of note for many years (at least according to his Wikipedia profile) and seems to have a strong libertarian style political view so I think his opinion is worth very little.

The government says its trying to fix the problem (which it obviously recognises is real) but its really just fine tuning the details instead of making any significant changes. I agree that longer term contracts and simplified bureaucracy (if it actually happens) would have to be a positive move though, and better than nothing.

Everyone has to put up with this sort of nonsense to some extent, but that doesn't make it right. Maybe if a better system could be devised for managing science then the same model could be applied to other areas, such as education.

My advise to politicians (who tend to be ex lawyers, managers and accountants) would be to do the opposite of what they think is right. You don't make things better by having more paper work, or more managers, or more accountability. If you really want people to do their job instead of yours (adminstration) then let them do it. Fire the managers, shred the paper work, and let the accountability work through peer review. Honestly, it will work, just give it a try!

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Comment 1 (2611) by Jim on 2010-02-26 at 09:56:46:

OJB seems to think that science should have a free ride and not be restricted by financial reality like the rest of us hard working kiwis are. Well wouldn't that be nice. We would all like a blank check and the freedom to do whatever we want but this is the real world.

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Comment 2 (2613) by OJB on 2010-02-27 at 09:36:01:

There's a common logical fallacy you seem to be falling into here: the false dichotomy. Its not a choice between very restrictive and tightly controlled science funding (like we have now) and a "blank check". Its a choice between the terrible system we have now and a much better funded and less bureaucratic one.

And as far as "financial reality" is concerned. I don't think that even exists. Its almost like an oxymoron, and a very convenient excuse to underfund essential parts of society without giving any good reason apart from this mythical "financial reality".

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