A difficult funding environment and quantum changes in the tools and discoveries of science demand a fundamental rethinking of how the research and development community uses available money and conducts science and technology research in the United States, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner said in a recent forum.
Part of that rethinking, he noted, must include creating a new paradigm of engagement—two-way communication—between researchers and the public toward conduct of research that is meaningful for all parties.
Leshner laid out those challenges before a group of Department of Defense researchers and administrators, hosted by the Office of Naval Research. The 12 March talk encompassed many of the themes he discussed in an editorial last year in Science.
Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of Science, sketched out a context where tremendous advances are being made in science, both through incremental building upon what is already known and new technologies “that are enabling us to ask totally different questions” that result in “much greater jumps in our knowledge.”
He illustrated the latter with examples from neuroscience, where “the ability to look into the brain of a living, breathing, awake individual and watch their mind in action totally has changed the way we can conceptualize phenomena like the mind.” This informs our understanding of normal function, disease, and addiction, he said.
But researchers should not expect R&D investments to keep pace with scientific advances. Given the fiscal situation, Leshner said, it is not realistic to expect significant new government funding for the foreseeable future. In fact, cuts are a more likely possibility, and so science must learn to do more with less.
Science also must strive to overcome the inherent conservatism of the peer-review process that most often is averse to high risk, high-payoff proposals. The process became a bit less constrained at the U.S. National Institutes of Health during the years their budget was doubling, Leshner said, but has abated under current budgetary constraints.
He noted that “42% of an American researcher’s time is spent on administrative tasks.” That can be reduced by standardizing policies and procedures across federal agencies, he said, and by modifying the grant submission and review processes.
At the same time, he suggested, the globalization of science will continue because people realize that investments in science and technology are the basis for prosperity in the modern world. This is particularly true of the world’s developing and most dynamic economies such as China, India, and Singapore.
The U.S. must adapt to this reality and realize that it can no longer expect to be No. 1 in all areas of science and technology, he said, but it must remain competitive in key areas.
Perhaps the biggest challenge will be to “think differently,” Leshner said. That will mean “a more coherent and compatible set of things that surround science,” including global collaboration within an agreed-upon framework of ethics; standardized terms, measurements, and processes so that data can be compared and integrated; intellectual property rights; and access to research findings once they have been completed.
Leshner said mistakes in publication, scientific misconduct, conflicts of interest, and insufficient care taken with persons participating in clinical trials may affect only a tiny fraction of all scientific research. Nonetheless, these incidents draw disproportionate attention and have eroded public confidence in science.
While science often has adapted well to rapid change within its own realm, it has done less well in interaction with the rest of society. Leshner said science must move beyond the belief that it simply needs to educate society on what it does, and embrace a new paradigm where it actively engages the public, listens to it, and conducts research that has meaning for society.
He cautioned the research community not to assume that the public is uninformed when it opposes scientific proposals such as those for addressing climate change or research using embryonic stem cells. Rather, Leshner sees those as examples where science “conflicts with core human values” in the moral, political, and economic realms.
An opponent of stem cell research can acknowledge the potential benefits that might spring from such research, he suggested, but object to it because of a fundamental belief in when life begins. “That is not a scientific question—it is a religious one,” Leshner said. “We can’t educate our way out of it.”
He urged a different strategy, one of “public engagement with science rather than simply public education about science.” Researchers in Europe and China have adopted this approach, he said, while in the United States, younger scientists have been the most eager to engage in the process.
Watch the full video of the 12 March forum speech by AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner.
Learn more about the Office of Naval Research at the U.S. Department of Defense.