“All but foolish men know, that the only solid, though a far slower reformation, is what each begins and perfects on himself.”
“There is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes. For he who innovates will have for enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who may be better off under the new.”
—Niccolò Machiavelli (27
It can be argued that the scientific revolution has been the single greatest transformative event for humanity since the harnessing of fire. Science has cured disease, unleashed the green revolution, taken us into space, and shrunk the world through rapid transportation and instant communication. However, science has also brought devastating weaponry and planetary degradation from natural resource extraction, pollution, and climate change. Regardless of one's stance on the benefits and liabilities of the scientific revolution, science remains humanity's best hope for solving some of its most vexing problems, from feeding a burgeoning population to finding alternative sources of energy to protecting our world against planet-killing meteorites. And yet, notwithstanding the importance of the scientific enterprise, only a tiny fraction of the human population is directly involved in scientific discovery. It is therefore crucial for society to nurture and sustain the fragile scientific enterprise and optimize its functioning to ensure the continuing survival and prosperity of mankind.
Since eclipsing theology as a framework for understanding the natural world and freeing itself from philosophy as an intellectual discipline, science has reigned as the supreme arbiter for certain types of knowledge for almost 2 centuries. The association of science with technology and national power has led to considerable public and governmental funding support. Looking back, the progress of science may appear inexorable, but there are increasing signs that this great human enterprise could benefit from some introspection and retooling. Today's science finds itself increasingly besieged, and some of its disciplines are in outright crisis. Threats to science come from both within and outside of the scientific enterprise. External threats include increasing antiscientific attitudes expressed by the general public and politicians, skepticism about the scientific community's conclusions (the global warming debate is but one current example), inadequate funding, and increasing regulation. These external threats are exacerbated by inadequate efforts by scientists to educate and engage the public in a clear discussion of the benefits and limitations of scientific findings. Internal threats include dissatisfaction of scientists with many aspects of the business of science as it is performed today (including but certainly not limited to peer review and incessant pressure to obtain grants and publications) and the corrosive impact of research errors and misconduct, as reflected by an increasing number of retracted publications.
History teaches us that most, if not all, great human enterprises must undergo periodic cycles of self-examination and renewal to maintain their vigor. Examples of great reforms include Marius' revamping of the legion system that allowed the Roman Empire to survive for centuries, the abandonment of scholasticism during the early Enlightenment that ushered in the scientific revolution, and Flexner's creation of the modern medical school curriculum. Reforms are nearly always catalyzed by crisis and discontent, and perhaps we are approaching a time when fundamental reforms are needed for the scientific enterprise. However, history also tells us that reforms are usually bitterly resisted by the establishment, and any attempt at reforming science is likely to encounter strong headwinds.
Any movement to reform science must consider the problems and suggest solutions. In our view there are changes that can be made entirely within the scientific enterprise (methodological and cultural), whereas others must engage societal and political processes (structural). This article will focus on methodological and cultural reforms, and the accompanying paper (15
) will address structural problems.