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Can incentives slow down scientific progress?

Can incentives slow down scientific progress?

By Varun Mahesh

Economics states that people are shaped by incentives rather than inherent qualities. It states that wrongdoings in a system can be eliminated through incentives that ensure compliance.

Incentives can be of varying forms. The Federal Reserve might use interest rate cuts as an incentive in order to encourage people to pump more money into the economy. However, a mother might see an incentive as an ice cream that motivates her child to do his homework. In either case, they are capable of serving as powerful agents of order, because people tend to respond to incentives.

Such incentives do not always address the problem. They may even backfire, giving rise to a whole new array of problems to deal with.

Misplaced Incentives

Let us consider one such case. In 1989, two scientists, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced that they had finally achieved a cold fusion reaction. This achievement would allow fusion reactions at room temperatures thereby making it feasible to generate large amounts of energy at extremely low costs.

Since this revelation was still pending scientific approval, it invited significant suspicion. Various researchers tried to reproduce their experiment, but to no avail.

Exclusion of pertinent experimental data from the paper increased suspicion. Furthermore, the duo dismissed all requests to present such information. The two chemists rushed their experiments to trump a competitor to its publication. To make things worse, the editor of the journal which went on to publish the duo’s work hastened their peer review procedure for a hurried publication.

Unable to replicate the results, the cold fusion experiment died as a rumour, and the entire scientific fraternity took a beating.

This incident clearly highlights major structural gaps in the present system.

The incentive to be the first one to assert proprietary claims on a research trumped the necessity to validate it. The incentive to become the first journal to publish revolutionary results on cold fusion caused the editors to circumvent the peer review process.

The Theranos Debacle

In 2013, Theranos, a startup by Stanford drop-out Elizabeth Holmes, broke headlines when it claimed to have developed a blood testing device which could perform more than 200 tests on a single finger prick of blood. It could do so at low costs. Wealthy investors soon showered this revolutionary idea with millions of dollars.

blood in a test tube

Theranos claiming to have developed a device which could perform 200 tests from a drop of blood | Photo Courtesy: Pixabay

However, a damning Wall street journal exposé from 2015 severely questioned the credibility of the tests. The article revealed various instances of misconduct and cover-up. Due to an influx of inquiries, Holmes used the veil of intellectual property concerns to protect Theranos from scrutiny. Eventually, this secrecy led to a criminal investigation and a ban on Holmes from medical laboratory pursuits for 2 years.

It is important to understand that misconduct by Holmes arose out of gaps inherent in the system. If peer review was a mandatory procedure, instead of a standard practice, Theranos would have to expose their technology to the scrutiny of science. If there was something to hide, Holmes would have had trouble in releasing the product in the first place.

Similarly, a punishment for publicizing claims before thorough scientific verification would give enough disincentive to prevent a repeat of the Pons and Fleischmann episode.

Science: The Language of Facts

Such cases are rare. Defaulters in science are a rare exception. However, this is still worrisome because people expect scientists to tell them the truth. This is because science must fundamentally deal with the representation of facts, which are universal truths. Therefore, every such exception majorly destroys the credibility of the field as a whole, because a scientist, by definition, should not be lying.

What Lies Ahead

Academicians across various professions are under pressure to keep producing papers at regular intervals. Instead of producing high-quality work, this has shifted the focus towards manufacturing content. Non-reproducibility of the results of published scientific experiments are leading to panic across various fields of study.

The inclination to do the right thing can only increase if people have a source of motivation to supplement their scruples of conscience.

The inclination to do the right thing can only increase if people have a source of motivation to supplement their scruples of conscience. The present system of science relies too heavily on the conduct and integrity of its participants. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that people need incentives to sustain the right virtues. Perhaps it is time for science to learn a few lessons from its dismal cousin: Economics

Featured Image Credits: Pixabay

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