Sunday, July 01, 2018

Book review: The Secret Life of Science

I recently received a copy of The Secret Life of Science:  How It Really Works and Why It Matters, by Jeremy Baumberg of Cambridge University.  The book is meant to provide a look at the "science ecosystem", and it seems to be unique, at least in my experience.  From the perspective of a practitioner but with a wider eye, Prof. Baumberg tries to explain much of the modern scientific enterprise - what is modern science (with an emphasis on "simplifiers" [often reductionists] vs. "constructors" [closer to engineers, building new syntheses] - this is rather similar to Narayanamurti's take described here), who are the different stakeholders, publication as currency, scientific conferences, science publicizing and reporting, how funding decisions happen, career paths and competition, etc. 

I haven't seen anyone else try to spell out, for a non-scientist audience, how the scientific enterprise fits together from its many parts, and that alone makes this book important - it would be great if someone could get some policy-makers to read it.  I agree with many of the book's main observations:

  • The actual scientific enterprise is complicated (as pointed out repeatedly with one particular busy figure that recurs throughout the text), with a bunch of stakeholders, some cooperating, some competing, and we've arrived at the present situation through a complex, emergent history of market forces, not some global optimization of how best to allocate resources or how to choose topics. 
  • Scientific publishing is pretty bizarre, functioning to disseminate knowledge as well as a way of keeping score; peer review is annoying in many ways but serves a valuable purpose; for-profit publications can distort people's behaviors because of the prestige associated with some.
  • Conferences are also pretty weird, serving purposes (networking, researcher presentation training) that are not really what used to be the point (putting out and debating new results).
  • Science journalism is difficult, with far more science than can be covered, squeezed resources for real journalism, incentives for PR that can oversimplify or amp up claims and controversy, etc.
The book ends with some observations and suggestions from the author's perspective on changes that might improve the system, with a realist recognition that big changes will be hard.   

It would be very interesting to get the perspective of someone in a very different scientific field (e.g., biochemistry) for their take on Prof. Baumberg's presentation.  My own research interests align much w/ his, so it's hard for me to judge whether his point of view on some matters matches up well with other fields.  (I do wonder about some of the numbers that appear.  Has the number of scientists in France really grown by a factor of three since 1980?  And by a factor of five in Spain over that time?)

If you know someone who is interested in a solid take on the state of play in (largely academic) science in the West today, this is a very good place to start. 

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