'Not every proposed reform is necessarily good'

Science reform movements have been co-opted by egalitarians

Scientist in the lab
Photo: Pexels

Science is great: It is our best way of producing knowledge – it is the concrete application of our mind to overcome problems and improve our wellbeing. But science can be even greater. Precisely because of its important function to us, science should remain self-correcting and innovative. Science reform should therefore aim to rectify errors in science and to improve adaptability and innovativeness in science.   

And reform is indeed necessary: despite the measures in place, fraud in science persists; there are problems surrounding replication; the peer review system can be improved; and positive publication bias remains an issue, among other concerns. Yet not every proposed reform is necessarily a good reform; there are just as many or probably more ways to worsen science than there are to better it. Many proposed science reforms from the past few years have been born more out of egalitarian motivations than a desire to improve science. Under the guise of science reform, these egalitarians have proposed a variety of changes to academia that have nothing to do with knowledge production but rather advocate for changes that focus on equality of outcome over merit. 

Given the complexities of science reform, it is crucial to distinguish between initiatives that genuinely aim to enhance the scientific process and those that seek to hijack reform movements for unrelated ends. Next time you come across a proposed science reform, ask yourself whether it truly contributes to knowledge production or whether it is simply serving as a vehicle for egalitarian objectives. Take some examples from recent years. 

Egalitarian “science reformers” rightly acknowledge the importance of so-called “team science”, i.e. the joint endeavour by experts from various disciplines to tackle a scientific problem. However, they unjustly conflate recognition of team science with the dilution of individual contributions and merit. They advocate open access because everyone should equally have access to the products of scientific inquiry, yet never bothered to ask people, let alone the scientists themselves, what they prefer. I suspect many would prefer researchers spend their limited time on other activities, especially if those prove to be more conducive to knowledge production. 

Worse, some egalitarians propose to do away with metrics of productivity and other types of rankings altogether. Again, reform in this area is necessary: currently, popular metrics, such as the h-index, are poor indicators of actual productivity. They focus on the wrong aspects, such as citation quantity rather than the quality or innovativeness of the research. Nevertheless, measuring productivity in itself is good. More productive researchers contribute more to their fields and it is only logical that more resources are allocated to projects and individuals that are most likely to advance scientific understanding.  

This insistence on equality of outcome by egalitarian “science reformers” is starting to seep through into higher education. Proposals to abolish the cum laude have gained traction in recent months, arguing that such distinctions create unnecessary competition, stress, and a sense of inequality among students. However, removing such recognitions dilutes the value of merit. 

Science is, to me, the most beautiful human endeavour. And objectively, its contribution to human flourishing is without equal. We should therefore treasure it and protect it from those who would do it harm – not least among them supposed science reformers.