The Science Bubble

COMPETIÇÃO E ÉTICA CIENTÍFICA: uma perspectiva contra-corrente que suscita reflexão


Henry H. Bauer

The Science Bubble

When a useful activity expands without restraint, when more is not necessarily better, a collapse may occur that causes widespread harm. This phenomenon, known as a “Bubble,” is commonly associated with financial fads and crashes, as we witnessed most recently with the Mortgage Bubble that caused the Great Recession of 2008. It all began with an activity that is almost universally agreed to be socially useful, as mortgages enable people to own their residence, an activity that is believed to encourage responsible behavior. So, obviously, the more mortgages, the better! Government policies encouraged that. The greater the number and value of mortgages, the more benefit accrued to banks, insurance companies, and other sources of mortgage funding, and to the employees of those institutions. And so what was initially a socially desired means of enabling people to buy their homes became a quite different thing: a socially divisive and destructive system for bringing wealth to certain institutions and individuals and disastrous “side” effects to other individuals and institutions.


There have been quite a long series1  such financial Bubbles, but excessive growth can happen in other spheres too, as it has, I will argue, in science over the last half century. “Modern” science has expanded tremendously during its lifetime of half a millennium,2 which comprised at least three distinguishable eras, in the last of which —the present day —“science” has become a quite different thing than it used to be.3

Science became valued for its uncovering of truths about the natural world. Those truths, coupled with insights attained by technological inventors, generated tangible, socially desired products. Credit went primarily to “Science” rather than to technology, which is generally regarded (mistakenly) as “applied science,” and so it came to be believed that ever more science would bring ever more socially desirable products. Thereby science became a significantly different thing: a means to practical ends instead of a search for universal truths. A crucial difference is that while socially useful products are wanted pronto, ASAP, the search for universal truths cannot be hurried along. Much of what’s wrong with contemporary Science stems from the mistaken belief that it can deliver desired products quite quickly if enough scientists with enough money are thrown at the task.

As with the typical Bubble, the expansion of “Science” was fueled by wishful thinking, unreasonable expectations, and lack of understanding of what science is. In present-day “science,” the number of individuals and groups and laboratories and businesses chasing resources exceed what society needs and is willing to support.

The result has been cutthroat internecine competition and frank dishonesty extending even to outright fraud. Too much “scientific” activity displays shoddy behavior, corner-cutting, game-playing — unsavory practices that mostly but not always manage to remain just short of provable criminality.4 In this way, today’s science is quite a different thing than it was even half a century ago. Earlier, outright fraud in basic scientific research was so extraordinarily rare that instances were treated as singular events. But beginning about in the 1980s, fraud became so troubling an aspect of contemporary science that this has itself become a field of general concern, with journals5 and books6 and institutional divisions7 seeking to study and to prevent it. Scientists used to be regarded as inherently honest truth-seekers; nowadays society is preoccupied with teaching scientists how to be honest.8 That’s quite a difference! Universities whose faculty receive grants from the National Institutes of Health must provide formal courses of instruction in ethical behavior in science.


How the Science Bubble Got Going

Bubbles arise from normality under the illusion that if something is good, then more of it must be better. Performing well in worthwhile enterprises tends to bring tangible rewards — salary raises, bonuses, profits. The incentives are to do more of the same. The temptation is to bend rules, cut corners, become just a little bit dishonest, to do “what everyone else does” —embarking on the proverbial slippery slope that leads toward another Bubble. There is always ample room for rationalizing uncertainty on ethical issues: Is blood doping really a different sort of thing than spending a few months training at a high altitude? And if blood doping is okay, what’s wrong with other pharmaceutical helpers?

So Bubbles eventuate through insidious exaggerations of routine behavior; and as behavior changes, so the norms of acceptable behavior change imperceptibly but eventually ad absurdum.

A plausible origin of the Science Bubble was the prestige gained from the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. Vannevar Bush’s Report to the President, Science: The Endless Frontier9 is credited with stimulating an enormous infusion of government funds into science.

Academic institutions cooperated with delight. Four-year colleges and teachers’ colleges transformed themselves into more prestigious, presumptively research universities by hiring scientists who brought research grants loaded with “overhead” that paid for institutional improvements. In the 1940s, there had been 107 doctorate-granting research universities in the United States; 30 years later, there were 307.10 Fellowships encouraged students to take advanced degrees in science. Faculty were rewarded for getting more grants and turning out more graduates. The culture of science became imbued with the misguided, corrupting view that more equals better. More publications, more citations of one’s work, more students mentored, became the way to get ahead.


Bubble image photo: Lieveheersbeestje/DeviantArt.

So “salami-slicing” became very general: publish as many separate articles as possible from a given piece of research, gen­erating the acronym LPU for “least publishable unit.” New journals were founded. So the growing Science Bubble gathered a host of vested interests stretching quite far from the scientific community itself into a variety of influential institutions parasitic on science.

As to fraud, scientific research always involves making judgments. Is this experimental outlier invalid owing to some unknown flaw? If there are very few outliers, it seems reasonable just to discard them—and not even to mention them for fear of misleading others. Perhaps it’s not so long a step from there to “knowing” what a result ought to be and publishing that instead of what the instruments actually showed. And so on. Under pressures to produce, the temptation is to rationalize corner-cutting and set foot on the slippery slope.



One sign of the increased prevalence of fraud in science is that the newsletters of the National Institutes of Health quite frequently carry notices naming individuals who have been barred from seeking grants or serving on advisory boards following some kind of dishonest behavior, usually faking experimental results. How common this has become seems astonishing. About 2% of researchers admitted fudging results at least once—but since that 2% also believed that 14% of their colleagues had done so, perhaps the 2% is too low an estimate. Beyond that, about one-third admitted to questionable practices less serious than data fudging, but they thought that nearly three-quarters of their colleagues had been guilty of such misconduct.11 Rather clearly, mainstream science can no longer be automatically taken as trustworthy.

Such prominent media as the The Economist have noted that science has gone badly astray: “modern scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying—to the detriment of the whole of science, and of humanity…shoddy experiments…poor analysis…[H]alf of published research cannot be replicated…. [Only] six of 53 ‘landmark’ studies in cancer research…. just a quarter of 67 similarly important papers…. three-quarters of papers in…[computer science] are bunk…. roughly 80,000 patients took part in clinical trials based on research that was later retracted because of mistakes or improprieties.”12 Competitiveness resulting from growth is one of the reasons: just after World War II, the world had a few hundred thousand scientists; now there are 6–7 million…. “publish or perish”…. “Every year six freshly minted PhDs vie for every academic post.”


How Bubbles End

A lesson from history is that Bubbles end in crashes, not through reform. Those within the Bubble benefit from it and manage to overlook or ignore signs of internal dysfunction and external damage.

The over-production of scientists had been evident for decades. The job market for PhD scientists collapsed in the early 1970s, and though it recovered partly, it never did for physics PhDs, for example.

The ever-increasing competition led to an inescapably obvious decreasing rate of success in obtaining research grants. At the University of Kentucky in the mid-1960s, about half of the Chemistry Department’s proposals to the National Science Foundation succeeded; a decade later there was only 1 grant for every 10 applications. At the National Institutes of Health, the success rate fell from 31% to 18% between 1997 and 2011.13 The average age at which researchers receive their first award as principal or sole investigator increased from 37 in 1980 to 42 by 2007.14 In effect, biomedical scientists now begin their independent careers in middle age; surely the incentives are thereupon enormous to make hay quickly, brushing scruples aside.

Scientists, then, could hardly have avoided recognizing that just about everything associated with careers in research was increasingly dysfunctional. But what could any individual do about that? So, almost nothing was in fact done. The only action that comes to mind is that Harvard Medical School announced some years ago that it would henceforth evaluate only a candidate’s five most worthwhile published contributions instead of the whole padded publication list.

Outsiders recognized what was happening,6 indeed the historian Derek Price had predicted it.2 But the scientific community is not accustomed to taking advice from outsiders, especially not from those —historians, sociologists, etc.—who bring critiques rather than grant funds. And from the other side, the socially, financially, politically powerful institutions will not enact reforms to avoid the Bubble for at least two obvious reasons: First, they do not question the intellectual authority of Science; second, and partly because of that, those institutions brought today’s Big Science into being and are vested in it.

What’s the Problem?

Some quite prominent insiders have pointed to specific dysfunctionalities of the current scene, but they fail to understand that the problem resides in the whole culture of science, and even beyond that in society’s expectations and demands.

“‘I see a train wreck looming’, warned Daniel Kahneman, an eminent psychologist…. ‘There is no cost to getting things wrong…. The cost is not getting them published…. Journals must do more to enforce standards…. Budding scientists must be…imbued with skepticism towards their own results and those of others. Researchers ought to be judged on the basis of the quality, not the quantity, of their work. Funding agencies should encourage replications.’ ”15

But journals don’t enforce standards because they’re in the business of aiding publication. Researchers are so driven to publish that new journals are continually founded16 to serve that need inherent in today’s scientific culture. Scientists are already skeptical about others’ results, but the truly ground-breaking advances have come from geniuses who were not skeptical about their own notions. Perhaps funding agencies could indeed encourage replications by offering money, but that would not cause the scientific community to award prestige: it’s originality and new discoveries that bring notice and status within and also outside science.

Randy Schekman, winner of a Nobel Prize, recognizes implicitly that the culture of research sets dysfunctional incentives: “Those of us who follow these incentives are being entirely rational — I have followed them myself — but we do not always best serve our profession’s interests, let alone those of humanity and society.”17 Schekman suggests that “the incentives offered by top journals distort science” and proposes to organize a boycott of the leading journals Nature, Science, and (in biological sciences) Cell.18 Now it’s quite true that everyone wants to publish in Nature and Science, and every biologist wants to publish in Cell, which puts those journals in the impossible dilemma of wanting to be always first but also never wrong.19 But Schekman’s suggested solution, editing an on-line, open-access journal supported by funds from prestigious institutional patrons, cannot do what he hopes for. Undermining the prestige of Cell, Nature, and Science cannot change the fact that opinions will always create a hierarchy of prestige of journals, and the same dilemmas will face whichever journals happen to be on top.

Furthermore, Schekman displays a naïve misperception quite common among distinguished scientists of high integrity: he thinks all researchers are much like him. The new journal will be “edited by working scientists, who can assess the worth of papers without regard for citations.” But only time can reveal what is sound and what is not.20, 21 The most disinterested, well informed contemporaries simply cannot judge reliably what will stand the test of time and what will not. Moreover, one can only assess what researchers write about what they did, not how honestly they described it.

The status and functions of today’s leading journals are not entirely due to attitudes within the scientific community. The mass media are continually on the lookout for news about the latest exciting advances. Media coverage of science is, by and large, in the hands of people who understand little if anything about the substance of what they are covering, so they use journals of acknowledged high status as their presumptively reliable sources.

Scientists and Science Policy

Critiques and suggestions from within the scientific community fall short because the insiders are familiar with the trees, limbs, leaves, and nuts but do not realize that they are not competent to talk about the forest. And because Science is accepted universally as the ultimate unchallengeable intellectual authority, too many outsiders fail to realize that while scientists should be listened to and interrogated about matters of science, they should not take any leading—let alone decision-making —role in science policy. The difference between doing science and making science policy might be illustrated by what a friend and scientific genius once said to me about President Eisenhower’s expressed ambition to break 80 on the golf course: “What sort of ambition is that? If I were a golfer I would try to break 18!” That’s exactly the obsessive drive that brings scientific advances. God forbid that it guides science policy.

The best credentials for policy advice are in Science & Technology Studies (STS), which integrates the understandings of historians, philosophers, political scientists, economists, engineers, sociologists, and scientific researchers themselves in order to get a handle on the proper role of Science in society. STS has matured as the Science Bubble grew, perhaps because people in those various disciplines recognized that Science had become so important within society that its social and political interactions need to be understood better, so that Science could be properly trained and harnessed.

How Can the Science Bubble End?

Scientists did not create the Science Bubble on their own. Influential institutions and society as a whole brought the Bubble into being through wishful thinking and misunderstanding the nature of science. Much of modern society is vested in what has become significantly dysfunctional. History suggests that powerful vested interests need to experience tangible harm before a Bubble collapses. My present guess is that deflation will most likely await a catastrophic failure of science policy on some important matter. Most likely it will come where mainstream scientific advice on issues with significant social, economic, political implications has become too dogmatic for its own good.22


1 John Kenneth Galbraith, A Short History of Financial Euphoria, Whittle Books/Penguin, 1993.

2 Derek de Solla Price, Little Science, Big Science…and Beyond, Columbia University Press, 1986; Science Since Babylon, Yale University Press, 1975.(back to text)

3 Henry H. Bauer, “Three stages of modern science”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 27, (2013), 505-13.

4 Alok Jha, “False positives: fraud and misconduct are threatening scientific research,” The Guardian, 13 September 2012;

5 For instance, Accountability in Research (begun in 1989) and Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics (begun in 2000).

6 For instance, Sheldon Krimsky, Science in the Private Interest, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. (back to text)

7 For example, Office of Research Integrity in the Department of Health & Human Services, ; Center for Ethics in Science and Technology at the University of California at San Diego, .

8 Committee on the Conduct of Science, On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research, National Academy of Sciences, 2009 (3rd ed.).

9 Vannevar Bush, Science the Endless Frontier (Report to the President), 1945.

10 National Academy of Sciences, A Century of Doctorates, 1978.

11 Daniele Fanelli, “How many scientists fabricate and falsify research? A systematic review and meta-analysis of survey data”, PLoSONE, 4 # 5 (2009) e5738.

12 “How science goes wrong”, The Economist, 19 October 2013, p. 13.

13 Report on Research Grants, , accessed 3 March 2012.

14 Jocelyn Kaiser, “Zerhouni’s parting message: make room for young scientists,” Science, 322 (2008) 834–5.

15 “Unreliable research: Trouble at the lab,” The Economist, 19 October 2013, pp. 26-30.

16 Henry H. Bauer, “Fake, deceptive, predatory Science Journals and Conferences”; .

17 “How to break free from the tyranny of luxury journals (The Conversation),” 20 December 2013;

18 Ian Sample, The Guardian, “Nobel winner declares boycott of top science journals”, 9 December 2013;

19 p. 67 ff, in xxii.

20 Henry H. Bauer, “Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method”, University of Illinois Press, 1992.

21 Henry H. Bauer, “Real science isn’t news”, 13 June 1996, Science Writing Fellowships Program, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole (MA);

22 Henry H. Bauer, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012.


 HENRY BAUER is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry & Science Studies and Dean Emeritus of Arts & Sciences at Virginia Tech. Bauer has served as the editor of the Journal of Scientific Exploration. His latest book is Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, published by McFarland.

©Henry H. Bauer

This article was originally published in EdgeScience no.17, February 2014, a publication of the Society for Scientific Exploration. Permission to republish graciously given by the Author