Judith A. Curry is an American climatologist and former chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research interests include hurricanes, remote sensing, atmospheric modeling, polar climates, air-sea interactions, and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for atmospheric research. She is a member of the National Research Council's Climate Research Committee. As of 2017, she has retired from academia.
Curry is the co-author of Thermodynamics of Atmospheres and Oceans (1999), and co-editor of Encyclopedia of Atmospheric Sciences (2002), as well as over 140 scientific papers. Among her awards is the Henry G. Houghton Research Award from the American Meteorological Society in 1992.
Polanyi’s essay provides some interesting insights, as well as some striking contrasts with the Republic of Science in the early 21st century.
Polanyi’s analogy of the scientific process with markets captures the pure incentives that drive scientists – search of truth, intellectual satisfaction and individual ego. What happens when the externalities of the Republic of Science produce perverse incentives, and careerism becomes a dominant incentive that requires publishing a lot of papers rapidly and producing headline-worthy results (who even cares if these papers don’t survive scrutiny beyond their press release)? (see What is the measure of scientific success?) What happens is that you get increasing incidence of scientific fraud (see Science: in the doghouse?), cherry picking and meaningless papers on headline grabbing topics that don’t stand up to the test of time (see Trust and don’t bother to verify).
And what happens when the ‘hand’ guiding science isn’t ‘invisible’, i.e. science is driven by politics, such as a political imperative to move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy? Federal funding can bias science, particularly in terms of selecting which scientific problems receive attention (link).
And what of Polanyi’s statement: “Such self-coordination of independent initiatives leads to a joint result which is unpremeditated by any of those who bring it about.” The ‘result’ of dangerous anthropogenic climate change and the harms of dietary fat were hardly unpremeditated.
When science is politically relevant and has been politicized, how objective are the authorities that are keepers of the orthodoxy — journal editors, officers of professional societies, university administrators — and how open are they to dissenting perspectives? The experiences of Lennart Bengtsson (link), my being called a ‘climate heretic’ (see my essay Heresy and the creation of monsters), Christopher Essex’s essay (link), Roger Pielke Jr’s experiences, and MANY more examples among climate scientists speak to the fact that the keepers of the climate science orthodoxy are failing in this regard [link to Are climate scientists being forced to toe the line?]. Without the internet and the blogosphere, these dissenting voices would be rendered silent by the keepers of the orthodoxy.
Climate and environmental sciences are far from the only scientific fields suffering in this way – the problem is also rampant in medicine, nutrition, and psychology [link to Partisanship and silencing science.]
Where lies the solution to this? Well, one possibility is reflected in Polanyi’s statement: “[L]ittle more can, or need, be done towards the advancement of science, than to assist spontaneous movements towards new fields of distinguished discovery, at the expense of fields that have become exhausted.” Now that climate science is ‘settled’, i.e. at least it is perceived to be sufficiently settled to provide the basis for a very expensive international climate ‘agreement’ (not treaty), perhaps future investments should be directed towards other fields that are deemed important or where greater progress can be made. This is exactly what has been happening in Australia, as the Turnbull administration has been axing climate jobs at CSIRO (link).
Is climate science ‘exhausted’ in terms of diminishing returns on future research? I would argue that climate science is an immature field with many unknowns; however the current paradigm of using inadequate climate models to focus on human caused climate change has reached the point of diminishing returns. Further, the intense politicization of the subject has adversely influenced the community of scientists — in terms of biasing the scientists and also in discouraging young scientists from entering and staying in the field. So in a sense, climate science has become ‘exhausted’ by the politicization.
Governments who fund science and universities who hire scientists need to make the hard decisions regarding which fields and subfields are most worthy of investment, in terms of new breakthrough science. While I was Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, it was my privilege and opportunity to hire 27 faculty members (24 as primary appointments, 3 as joint hires) over the course of 13 years. This is a rare opportunity for a department in the geosciences. When I became Chair in 2002, the School had 4 divisions – geochemistry, geophysics, atmospheric chemistry, and atmospheric dynamics. I made it a priority to bring ‘water’ into the School, and to hire faculty members that could interact with other scientists and engineers, beyond the geosciences, to stimulate new research areas. Apart from these broad objectives, I hired the best people that we could attract, with little preference for specific research areas. This approach resulted in a reconfiguration of the school to include oceanography, planetary and space sciences, biogeochemistry, and new subfields of geophysics.
I did not hire much in the areas of atmospheric dynamics or climate science (outside of oceanography and biogeochemistry), simply because the quality of the applicants was not as strong as in the other fields. While I have inferred that my provost was not pleased that I did not hire more in ‘climate science’, the outstanding young scientists that I did hire are garnering substantial external recognition and are being heavily recruited by other universities (good luck to the new Chair in retaining these outstanding faculty members). Why didn’t I hire more in atmospheric dynamics and climate science? The atmospheric dynamics faculty candidates generally were in the areas of data assimilation and mesoscale modeling — areas that are important, but arguably engineering rather than science that is going to lead to a breakthrough in understanding. In climate science, most of the applicants were using climate models, by running scenarios and inferring dire consequences — not the climate dynamics theorists that I was hoping for, that could help understand and untangle the complex physical, chemical and even biological processes influencing the climate system.
In a broader sense, which scientific subfields and topics are deemed to be important and why? There is no easy answer to this, but it is the job of university Deans and federal funding agencies to prioritize. There is an interesting example currently in the news, that comes from Georgia Tech’s David Hu, Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering. He has written an essay Confessions of a Wasteful Scientist. Subtitle: Three of my projects appeared last week on a senator’s list of questionable research. Allow me to explain…
I would also like to respond to Polanyi’s statement: “universities provide an intimate communion for the formation of scientific opinion, free from corrupting intrusions and distractions.” I am very sad to report that this simply isn’t true of universities in the early 21st century. Heterodoxacademy.org is responding to the lack of intellectual diversity at universities. Universities are becoming very uncomfortable places for faculty members with minority perspectives on controversial topics.
As a result, many scientists with minority perspectives are leaving universities. Further, the internet has enabled many individuals outside of academia to make important contributions to climate science (published in refereed journals, in books, and in other reports). Polanyi wrote: “[T]he general public cannot participate in the intellectual milieu in which discoveries are made. For such work the scientist needs a secluded place among like minded colleagues who keenly share his aims and sharply control his performances.” This is a perspective on scientists that is peculiar to the 20th century [see Scientist: the evolving story of a word]. Particularly in climate science, we are seeing the emergence of a substantial and influential cohort of non-academic scientists, contributing both to the published literature and the public scientific debate. This broadening of the notions of expertise away from university elites is leading some to question whether our traditional notions of expertise are dead [link].
So, what should the Republic of Science look like in the 21st century? The overwhelming issue for the health of science is to reassert the importance of intellectual and political diversity in science, and to respect and even nurture scientific mavericks. The tension between pure (curiosity driven) science and use-inspired and applied science [see Pasteur’s quadrant] needs to be resolved in a way that supports all three, with appropriate roles for universities, government and the private sector. And finally, the reward structure for university scientists need to change to reward more meaningful science that stands the test of time, versus counting papers and press releases, which may not survive even superficial scrutiny even after being published in prestigious journals that are more interested in impact than in rigorous methods and appropriate conclusions.
Failure to give serious thought to these issues risks losing the public trust and support for elite university science (at least in certain fields). Scientists are becoming their own worst enemy when they play into the hands of politicians and others seeking to politicize their science.https://judithcurry.com/2016/05/30/the- ... f-science/