Rise of autocratic science research

Advances in Science comes when there is a free exchange of accumulating knowledge. Thus, Science, by definition, should be a democratic institution by its nature.

As organization of family units is a foundation for modern states, organization of research laboratory units is a foundation for modern science. So analysis of laboratory units can give us a clue of how science advances or stumbles.

In contrast to popular belief, organization of modern research laboratory units is clearly and unequivocally autocratic in nature rather than democratic. Simply put, an absolute majority of research laboratories in both academia and industry do not and cannot contribute to the advancement of science, period. Of course, such labs do publish research articles at the end of the calendar year or submitting quarterly reports to justify their existence, but that all.

So a natural question is why is it the case? Almost everyone is starting their science journey as an idealist democrats and are ending up as a fearful autocrats. Why? This is because there is no separation between laboratory research and laboratory management. When the same Principal Investigator (PI) are required to conduct high quality scientific research as well as to procure the funds for the same research, there is a little tolerance to different ideas and opinions. Fear of losing funding prevent PIs to be courageous in science and follow their gut instincts. In the end, fear reduces the diversity and chances of great discoveries and such PIs become career scientists with more knowledge in bureaucracy than science.

This was a one reason why the US Government originally had created an intramural research labs with a secure funding where scientists were just asked to focus on science. The same idea was behind HHMI funding. When PIs are released from the fear of loosing financial support, and only requirement to them is that they will produce high quality research that can be published in journals like Nature or Science (or at least in top 5 journals in their subject field), then PIs would become open-minded and more democratic because high quality research needs a democratic environment to become a reality.

Actually, HHMI Investigators do publish in top journals. However, intramural biomedical research funded by the US Government did not fare well since Government did not put the requirement that the research should be of high quality, not just any kind of research conducted at leisure. Without such balancing approach, system becomes easily distorted.

posted by David Usharauli

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