American Science Decline: The Cause and Cure
by J. Marvin Herndon

Science is an important component for the strength of America and for the well being of her people. Science is the mother that gives birth to the technology that makes our economy robust and our military strong. Science improves our health and enables us to see our world in ways never before envisioned, uplifting spirits and boosting national prestige. But for the past four decades, despite ever-increasing science budgets, American science has continued to decline toward third-world status. Why? Because fundamental mistakes underlie the methodology by which the U.S. Government supports science.

Before World War II there was very little government funding of science, but that changed because of war-time necessities. In 1951, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) was established to provide support for post-World War II scientific research. The methodology for administrating science-funding, invented in the early 1950s by NSF, has been adopted essentially unchanged by virtually all subsequent U.S. Government funding agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The problem is this: That methodology is flawed and those flaws have been gradually undermining, corrupting, and trivializing American science for decades. Here I disclose the principal flaws and point the way for the President of the United States to correct them.

NSF Flaw #1

Statement of Flaw #1:

Proposals for scientific funding are generally reviewed by “anonymous peer reviewers”. NSF invented the concept of “peer review”, wherein a scientist’s competitors would review and evaluate his/her/their proposal for funding, and that the reviewers’ identities would be concealed. The idea of using anonymous peer reviewers must have seemed like an administrative stroke of genius as the process was adopted by virtually all government funding-agencies which followed and was adopted almost universally by editors of scientific journals. But no one seems to have considered the lessons of history with respect to secrecy.

Secrecy is certainly necessary in matters of national security and defense. But in science does secrecy and concomitant freedom from accountability really encourage truthfulness? If secrecy did in fact lead to greater truthfulness, secrecy would be put to great advantage in the courts. Courts have in fact employed secrecy – during the infamous Spanish Inquisition and in virtually every totalitarian dictatorship – and the result is always the same: Unscrupulous individuals falsely denounce others and corruption abounds.

The application of anonymity and freedom from accountability in the peer review system gives unfair advantage to those who would unjustly berate a competitor’s proposal for obtaining funding for research. The perception – real or imagined – that some individuals would do just that has had a chilling effect, forcing scientists to become defensive, adopting only the consensus-approved viewpoint and refraining from discussing anything that might be considered as a challenge to other’s work or to the funding agency’s programs. And that is not what science is all about.

First-step Correction of Flaw #1:

The President of the United States could sign an Executive Order forbidding the U.S. Government from engaging in anonymous peer review and forbidding the U. S. Government from doing business with organizations that do.

NSF Flaw #2

Statement of Flaw #2:

NSF invented the concept of scientists proposing specific projects for funding, which has led to the trivialization and bureaucratization of science. Why so? The flaw is that it is completely impossible to say beforehand what one will discover, which has never before been discovered, and to say what one will do to discover it. The consequence has been the proposing of trivial projects often with non-scientific end-results, such as the wide-spread practice of making models based upon assumptions, instead of making discoveries. Further, proposal “evaluation” is often a guise to engage in exclusionary and ethically questionable, anti-competitive practices. Moreover, bureaucrat “program managers” decide which projects are suitable for the programs that they design. There is no incentive to make important discoveries or to challenge existing ideas; quite the contrary.

First-step Correction of Flaw #2:

Science funding should be based, not upon proposals of what scientists say they will do, but should be based upon the scientists’ successful track record of making important discoveries. In other words, support scientists, not proposed projects; give scientists the freedom to chart their own paths with the survival-incentive being to make important discoveries. Instead of managing programs, agency officials could be charged with identifying important new discoveries and helping to facilitate access to government-funded laboratories and repositories. Of course, large-scale projects, such as the construction of a new telescope, would continue to be proposed much as at present, but without anonymous reviewers. A mechanism should be put in place to support new, promising scientists, perhaps as part of their education, to provide support for a period of a few years so they could attempt to establish a track record of making discoveries.

NSF Flaw #3

Statement of Flaw #3:

NSF began the now wide-spread practice of making grants to universities and other non-profit institutions with scientists, usually faculty members, being classed as “principal investigators”. The consequence of that methodology is that there is no direct legal responsibility or liability for the scientists’ conduct. As a consequence, all too often with impunity scientists misrepresent the state of scientific knowledge and engage in anti-competitive practices, including the black-listing of other capable, experienced scientists. University and institution administrators, when made aware of such conduct, in my experience, do nothing to correct the mal-conduct, having neither the expertise nor, with tenure, the perception of authority or responsibility. The result is that American taxpayers’ money is wasted on a grand scale and the science produced is greatly inferior to what it might be.

First-step Correction of Flaw #3:

Consistent with the concept of supporting scientists based upon past performance, scientists should be treated individually as U.S. Government contractors, subject to Federal Acquisition Regulations. This methodology would put all government-funded scientists on an equal footing, with the scientists themselves being legally accountable for their actions. Such a plan would not preclude scientists from making individual contractual arrangements with parent institutions to provide overhead facilities.


NSF Flaw #4

Statement of Flaw #4:

NSF began the now wide-spread practice of the government paying publication costs, “page charges”, for scientific articles in journals run by for-profit companies or by special-interest science organizations. Because these publishers demand ownership of copyrights, taxpayers who want to obtain an electronic copy must pay, typically $40.00, for an article whose underlying research and publication costs were already paid with taxpayer dollars. Moreover, commercial and protectionist practices often subvert the free exchange of information, which should be part of science, making the publication of contradictions and new advances extremely difficult. Furthermore, publishers have little incentive or mechanism to insist upon truthful representations. For example, in ethical science, published contradictions should be cited, but with the extant system it is common practice to ignore contradictions which may call into question the validity of what is being published. The net result is that unethical scientists frequently deceive the general public and the scientific community and waste taxpayer money on questionable endeavors.

First-step Correction of Flaw #4:

The U.S. Government should consider establishing an e-journal with a specific template as the sole publication outlet for government supported science and technological results, which would be open as well to non-government-supported research publication. Therein each researcher would be able to publish his/her/their research results without any review, other than internal reviews and standards possibly imposed by the individual’s respective institution.

In addition to adapting certain strategies from existing e-journals, such as links to research data, the proposed new system may contain unique elements, such as templates for specific comments from the posting author(s). The questions below provide some possible examples:

What is the importance and uniqueness of this report?”  The answer to this question may be of value to government administrators, to other scientists in the field, to commercial organizations, to the public and to the media. But there is the additional benefit of helping to bring into focus the idea that success should relate to the importance and uniqueness of the work, and not to the number of papers published.

What approaches were tried but did not work?” Scientific reports rarely address this question, but the answer provides useful information that may help to keep others from repeating fruitless activities, or it may allow others who have different insights to glimpse new paths to try.

What are the competing and conflicting ideas?” Actually, this information should be part of any good scientific report. But, over the past several decades, either out of fear of anonymous reviewers or to keep an unbreakable lock on research funds, it is not unusual for scientists to completely ignore contradictory work, which is poor science that can lead to wasted resources and missed opportunities.

What are the lessons learned?” Scientific reports rarely address this question, but in any truly pioneering endeavor the answer to that question helps individuals focus on improving their techniques and methodologies.

Many benefits are to be gained through implementing the above described publication system as the primary publication outlet, including:

►A low-cost means to guarantee free access to research without attempting to force change on the organizations that presently control access, such as publishing companies that charge fees both for publishing and for copies of reports they have published

►A means for rapid publication of research results, while obviating many of the impediments existent in the other, older publication system, such as the delays caused by reviewers whose intent is to delay or prevent publication of competitor’s work. 

►Providing government and private-sector administrators with readily accessible, across-the-board, easily-tracked, current-view project information. 

►Help researchers focus on the important elements of their investigations, rather than deflecting energy and resources on exaggerated publication.

The prototype primary publication system suggested above may be readily adapted to the concept of supporting individuals based upon their track record of important discoveries, rather than supporting proposals for future projects. Properly executed, this system provides a level playing field with equal access, free from exclusionary and anti-competitive, self-interest opposition. It is a system which can be designed to allow outside comments and author responses. And, it would save the government money.

Additional Administrative Initiatives

Administrative Initiatives: Beyond correcting the above described flaws, the President of the United States can accelerate the rejuvenation of American science in the following ways:

(1) Champion the exciting ideal that science is about discovery, about new ideas, about debate and discussion, about new and improved technologies, about invention and innovation, and about solving America’s problems – now.

(2) Initiate open competitions to solve specific problems, like a new efficient process for removing salt from seawater, and unspecific competitions as well. Sizable cash awards and/or government contracts can be powerful incentives with the only significant costs being the rewards themselves.

(3) Set up a series of state-of-the-art laboratories with charters allowing individual American researchers to request specific measurements. This would allow the opportunity for new ideas to receive experimental justification and would serve to boost the economy, creating jobs, and encouraging innovations in scientific instrumentation.

(4) Critically and questioningly review all existing major government-funded research endeavors. Will they advance American interests? Are they practical? Is the potential gain worth the expense? Can the money be spent better in other endeavors?

For half a century, the U.S. Government, through NSF-instigated flaws, has been responsible for producing inferior-quality science, often opposing scientific advances made without government funding, and generally driving American science toward third-world status. Here I have revealed the underlying flaws and proposed corrective actions.

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