Environmental Scientific Research: Why Some is of Minimal Value to Science and Humanity
Submitted by Anonymous on Sun, 01/10/2010 - 11:30
Environmental Scientific Research :
Why Some is of Minimal Value to Science and Humanity
J. T. Trevors and M. H. Saier
Some scientific research is of little value to both science and humanity. This may appear as a bold statement coming from research scientists. Traitors amongst the international scientific community, who are turning on their own for no apparent reason. However, the above statement is accurate for many reasons. As editors of science journals we are presented with an immense number of submitted articles on an annual basis. A percentage of those submissions are of no scientific and humanitarian value. The reasons are numerous but can be summarized as follows.
1. The experiments were of local interest only and no new knowledge was presented that expanded the current knowledge base. The data sets may have had local or regional significance and were therefore better suited to a local or regional publication, or even not published. As an example, the science community is not interested in the indicator bacterial count in a village water supply. The methods are standard and such data has been collected for decades in many countries. These are data collection exercises.
2. Some data collection exercises and experiments are not correctly replicated. Insufficient samples were used and a statistical analysis was lacking. Confidence in the data sets and the conclusions drawn can be very low. However, some data was collected.
3. In many studies, standardized methods have been applied and no new method development occurred. The standard method is fully acceptable and hence comparisons of data sets to other research using the same methods can be made. However, there may be better methods available, but they are not accepted as standardized yet.
4. In some ecological and environmental research, data collection appears to be the objective. Hypothesis formation and testing seems to be secondary or non-existent. Generally, no new principles, conclusions and theories arise from such research.
5. Some ecological and environmental research may lead to the discovery of new species useful in biocontrol in agriculture, a new food source, a source of enzymes such as the Taq polymerase, discovery of new genes or a metabolic pathway for degradation of pollutants, a new disease vector or pathogen, depletion of vital components of our biosphere, loss of biodiversity, a new phylogenetic relationship and ancient DNA, as some examples. The opposite is also true and no new knowledge is discovered and presented. However, the researchers will make every attempt to publish the data sets and conclusions, knowing in many cases that the information presented has been known for many years but not from their particular environmental locations.
6. Some submissions will have out of date and incomplete references. Landmark articles may be also be missing. A more complete literature search would have revealed that they have no new knowledge in their article and the research was unnecessary. Moreover, if students conducted the research under the supervision, of a principal investigator, then the student was trained how to conduct marginal research. Scholarship was not the objective.
7. Some researchers will attempt to place a new spin on old knowledge or overstate the significance of their research and its future value. This can be designated wishful thinking science. The fact that scientists designate something new knowledge when it is not, does not mean it is new and has advanced knowledge. Peer review does not catch all these claims. Can it be that the advantages of trying to publish the research outweighs any rewards of intellectual honesty?
As humanity attempts to survive and improve with all humans having the basic needs of life and universal human rights, research that has already been conducted and confirmed correct does not need to be repeated unless the previous research was flawed. Humanity needs new significant discoveries and transformative science to be conducted. There will never be sufficient funds to conduct all the priority, strategic research. Therefore, the not so useful science has little value. Very rarely, does it lead to major discoveries.
Some will argue we are wrong in our assessment and all science should be supported as discoveries will be made that were unforeseen. Often, it is excellent scientists that make the discoveries because they are experts, well trained and capable of seeing the discovery unfold. Generally it is not marginal science where the connection is made. We support all areas of science as science knowledge is additive and often progresses by small incremental steps. This does not mean that previously published and well verified knowledge needs to be repeated over and over with the hope of publishing again what is already known. In the end, the science depends on the hypothesis formation and the experiments that allow the hypothesis to be tested. If the hypothesis warrants more research and publication, then it should be done. If there is no hypothesis and a data collection exercise is undertaken, the outcome may be more of the same information that is unpublishable and the training of the students has been poor, at best.
There is also the argument that as developing countries try to enter the realm of international level research and publication, some of their science will initially not be at the international scholarship level. It will be difficult to publish this research in international and society journals if new knowledge is not advanced in the submission. If well established methods are applied to a local pollution study in a developing country and the researchers find they have a serious pollution problem, is this a valuable contribution locally or internationally? The knowledge is valuable locally but no new knowledge is generally advanced at the international level. Publication in an international journal will be difficult unless new knowledge and methods are being advanced that have international value.
Academic faculty also recognize that tenure and promotion decisions are in part made on the quality and quantity of publications. Not all publications will be excellent research. We recognize that academics under probation are sometimes desperate to publish anything. The situation is far from ideal. It takes an immense amount of effort, infrastructure, personnel and well educated personnel to conduct good research. In some institutions this is simply not possible, unless the researchers are collaborating with well established researchers and have access to infrastructure. Again, the situation is far from ideal and very frustrating for researchers. The outcome is that these less established and smaller institutions often focus on more teaching and less research.
The entire scientific community can assist each other by more collaborations (e.g., Scientists Without Borders) but this can only occur where the collaborators actually trust each other and official agreements on intellectual property (IP) and publications are in place. There are other economic, cultural and administrative barriers as well. Moreover, there is fraud, theft of intellectual property and scientific espionage. A competitive advantage in science translates to an immense advantage for any country. Collaborations are sometimes simply not possible at this point in time.
Transformative science is the driving force or engine of modern economies. It is costly and requires an immense investment in the education of scientists. Marginal science will simply not be part of the future of humanity as priority science will be all we can afford at best. This will have a devastating effect on some countries trying to advance their science basis. Where possible, the affluent countries will simply have to assist these developing countries as much as possible where it is legally and ethically possible to do so. Countries without governance and controlled by thugs and the military will be left behind unless they can be placed on the road to an evolving democracy.
J. T. Trevors
School of Environmental Sciences, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, N1G 2W1
M. H. Saier
Division of Biological Sciences, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0116, USA