What is good science? And what gets public funding?

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I’ve heard that we should stop talking about “pure” science and “applied” science; that we should only be talking about “good” science and “bad” science. Last year, CSIRO Chief ExecutiveMegan Clark said as much during question time at her National Press Club address, and this year I heard it recommended again at the Universities Australia Conference. So let’s talk good and bad.



Defining good and bad

Bad science is easy to spot: poorly-controlled experiments, bias or mistakes in interpretation, selective use of data to support a pre-determined viewpoint, and so on. We can look for bad science wherever there is very strong and specific self-interest.

Bad science is a big problem but it is usually exposed – eventually.

Good science is harder to define. Think about mathematical research rather than experimental science. We can agree what bad mathematics is – at least at an elementary level. It is incorrect mathematics.

But what is good mathematics? Or rather, what mathematics is really good? What is high quality maths?

Written By: Merlin Crossley
continue to source article at theconversation.com

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  1. A lot of waffle to get to what he advocates: that science should be funded publicly only if answers to 7 questions sounds good enough. By that logic, here’s what artists would need to answer to be funded:

    1) What is the best possible outcome of the project? 2) Could you explain why the art is in the in the interests of the public? 3) How many other artists and non-artists (so people, basically) will be interested? 4) Is the feasibility of the project comfortably above zero? (i.e. the idea should be original but not too risky) 5) Are the artists self-motivated, leading in their field and committed to their project? 6) Is the artitst’s record of productivity relative to opportunity strong and accelerating? 7) Is the field of artwork competitive and making rapid progress, plateauing or declining?

    Funny how we never expect art to “justify” itself that way, because we know there are many other ways to be valuable. Surely learning the truth is even more deserving of such broader appreciation than art.

  2. Clearly we will fund bad and good science we are after all funding human beings. Ultimately our prosperity will be found on just how much science we fund. If we are busy asking these questions too much we can’t expect to get much of either.

  3. Good science is harder to define.

    Inspirational investigations can lead to great advances in knowledge, but there will always be monumental unforeseen discoveries which nobody anticipated.

  4. At first I was surprised that a Dean of Science (assumption: Head of a University Science Department) should even ask the question ‘What is good science?’ Then I realised that he’s being rhetorical.

    Comparing the funding of the arts to funding for science is, bluntly to save time, hopelessly wrong-headed. To be fair to the good Professor, he may be repeating an analogy he heard elsewhere.

    The arts attract instant criticism that is informed and the public, in parallel, are free to ignore or enjoy both the work and the ‘expert’ criticism as they will. The arts have well-established (and easily maintained) infrastructure for attracting funding. Good art may be judged so by being popular or expensive because art is a commodity and those structures for access to it exist. One needs no training to be an art critic, so we are all critics. See how the ‘expert’ critics are frequently ignored and populism, even in the ivory towers of Art academia, is lauded. Art is tied to social mores and fashion – science is not. The list of fundamental differences is very long, but I think that titbit illustrates the case.

    I am saddened that Australia’s science funders can think of questions that are no better than:

    • What is the best possible outcome of the project?

    • Could you explain why the research is in the in the interests of the public?

    Highly subjective and apparently an effort to inject populism into science funding decisions – attempting to track, one assumes, the political agenda of the powerful, elected or not. I assumed, once I got to the end of the column and was able to read between the lines, that Professor Crossley is warning us that political interference is in science funding decisions is increasing?

    Obviously, several Nobel prize-winning ideas would have missed out on public funding by those criteria.

    Even I have to say that Merlin Crossley is being too hard here. If it were possible to create a climate that produced Nobel Prize-winning ideas like a chicken lays eggs we’d all be doing it right now.

    Professor Crossley’s suggestion that funding is better managed by public funding bodies which support researchers rather than projects is a fascinating one.

    The alternative idea of the Rich funding science is little more than moot. If they want to, what’s to stop them? There are cases of rich people funding some daft ideas – but there are also positive examples; Bill Gates is one and who can forget Lady Lovelace.

  5. “Bad science is easy to spot: poorly-controlled experiments, bias or mistakes in interpretation, selective use of data to support a pre-determined viewpoint, and so on. We can look for bad science wherever there is very strong and specific self-interest.”

    Spot on.

    “What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.”- Bertrand Russell

    • In reply to #6 by flamenco:

      “Bad science is easy to spot: poorly-controlled experiments, bias or mistakes in interpretation, selective use of data to support a pre-determined viewpoint, and so on. We can look for bad science wherever there is very strong and specific self-interest.”

      Spot on.

      Yes, but the flaw in this argument is that this ‘bad’ science has to be funded first or you don’t find out it’s bad science. The real question is how do you tell before hand, other than by reputation of scientists you have little chance it seems to me, often it is some underling or people with no scientific reputation that make discoveries in a team anyway. So I think until scientists kick up an enormous stink about what they do for us they will continue to have to justify the pittance they get to keep working and our society (Australia) will continue to be a country that defines itself by the holes it can dig in the ground and the food we can grow. Sad.

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