Policy driving science

At the outset, I had never intended to discuss politics (and bureaucracy) on the blog. Part of the reason is hubris-thy shall not offend those who can get offended. I find this dictum broken again and again, as I dive deeper into policy ideas. It is critical to avoid creating systems and mechanisms that can impede science.

Here’s something interesting:

Political Enough For Government Work

What happens if you take away scientific competition? There is indeed a way to do this, and that’s by working in a government agency. Being a government scientist is not a bad deal for a lot of people. The pay is good, the job is secure, and the expectations aren’t high. Securing funding is pretty easy and completely backwards from academia—you often get the funding first and justify it with a “grant” later. The perceived impact of your publications doesn’t matter, any journal is sufficient. In the case of my position at CDC-NIOSH, mechanistic science wasn’t encouraged. Instead, there was a lot of emphasis on toxicology, which simply involves exposing an animal or tissue to a compound or microbe and determining if there is an adverse effect. If there was, going further steps to determine why there was an adverse effect wasn’t necessary. It was a simple exposure, assess, report, rinse and repeat process.

The author lists several instances of bureaucratic dysfunctions, wasteful research and science driven by shifting political priorities. For example, the current flavour of the season is “climate change” and “promoting diversity” in academia. I can’t delve into the entire post from the linked article, but one another aspect of publishing requires a mention:

A prime example is the CDC’s flagship journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). According to the CDC, MMWR exists “…to report events of public health interest and importance to CDC’s major constituents—state and local health departments—and as quickly as possible”, and to distribute “… objective scientific information, albeit often preliminary, to the public at large”.

….Although most articles that appear in MMWR are not “peer-reviewed” in the way that submissions to medical journals are, to ensure that the content of MMWR comports with CDC policy, every submission to MMWR undergoes a rigorous multilevel clearance process before publication. This includes review by the CDC Director or designate, top scientific directors at all CDC organizational levels, and an exacting review by MMWR editors. Articles submitted to MMWR from non-CDC authors undergo the same kind of review by subject-matter experts within CDC. By the time a report appears in MMWR, it reflects, or is consistent with, CDC policy.

So it isn’t peer review, but editors have “exacting standards”. I call this a “sleight of hand”, but then the funders get a leeway to dictate what agenda driven science could be. There’s nothing “objective” about science here. While there are societal calls to “fix it”, please understand that these are perfect socialist systems where the inhabitants of this ecosystem are protected till the grave. There’s no “prestige” associated with this, but it represents a self-certification process (and system) derived from public funds. Let’s not be fooled by “individuals leaving their legacy imprints in the sands of time”. A sound policy provides actionable research benefiting the public good. It should be science driving the policy.

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