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Funding pressures prompt ‘lies’ from scientists

Scientists are being pressed too hard to promise that their work will deliver benefits to society, leading them to ‘lie’ and potentially undermine public faith in science, an innovation conference in Brussels was told.

Martin Andler, a vice-president of the grassroots group Euroscience and a mathematician at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin, told the SciTech Europe conference on 22 November that pressure for people engaged in basic research to say their work will be useful pushes them to be dishonest. “It’s wrong to force people to lie,” he said.

Robert Winston, an embryologist at Imperial College, London, said at the same meeting that unfulfilled promises from scientists could eventually undermine the public’s trust in science. He said that scientists “need to be more modest” about the importance of their

science—adding that they should sometimes even admit to having emotional biases that can influence their work.

These criticisms are supported by Brian Wynne, a sociologist of science at the University of Lancaster in the UK. Wynne says that pressure for research to deliver an economic payback is significant, and that it is “changing the nature of research”. He adds that this effect needs to be acknowledged and so far “has not been properly debated anywhere”.

Wynne participated in a study asking plant genomics scientists how they felt their work had been influenced by pressure to produce patents and partner with industry. He said that, overwhelmingly, the researchers responded that they felt “unable to ask more adventurous questions”. Instead, “they had to define questions that were more guaranteed to produce results.”

Wynne says that innovation could also benefit from more flexible expectations. Using sustainability as an example, he said: “So many innovation trajectories claim to be about climate adaptation or low carbon. But nobody’s seriously asking questions about their long-term sustainability. Everybody’s too desperate to show something in the short term.”

However a spokesman for the European Commission said that it was already taking such criticism into account in its plans for Horizon 2020.

“The Commission’s view is that it is about getting the right balance between curiosity-driven research and challenge-driven science,” he said. “The ERC is the epitome of the former, and the big increase we are proposing for it is hopefully a sign of our belief in curiosity-driven research.”