What scientists want… and the lump of coal in this year’s Christmas stocking.

“Only sick nouns need adjectives.”– Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor(1989)

In the old days, children were told that if they’d been good all year, Santa would bring them gifts to enjoy on Christmas Eve. But if they’d chronically misbehaved, then all they’d find Christmas morning would be a lump of coal[1].

Scientists want, above all else, for our science to benefit life. And the larger world seems eager to give us that chance. This year’s stocking is stuffed with the usual Congressional budget bounty, with some additional bulges hinting at several big new proposals. But any joy we scientists may feel should be tempered by the lump of coal the White House (through OSTP/NSTC/JCORE) is providing in the Christmas stocking at the same time.

No, that’s not the misdirected and ineffective attempts to subsidize continued use of coal itself, or any of the several other forms of climate-change denial. It’s not a set of immigration policies that constrain the arrival of bright young scientists and engineers from abroad. It’s not the rollback of environmental regulations or leasing of mineral rights on formerly pristine federal lands or attempts to politicize agency science advisory committees.

Scientists (and indeed a majority of Americans) hate these things, but it’s none of these things. These may be happening to science institutions and scientists, but they don’t reflect bad behavior on our part as such. 

No, the lump of coal has arrived in the form of a seemingly innocuous OSTP notice in the Federal register: a request for information on the American research environment. Here’s some of the language from that RFI: 

[SUMMARY] On behalf of the National Science and Technology Council’s (NSTC’s) Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE), the OSTP requests input on actions that Federal agencies can take, working in partnership with private industry, academic institutions, and non-profit/philanthropic organizations, to maximize the quality and effectiveness of the American research environment. Specific emphasis is placed on ensuring that the research environment is welcoming to all individuals and enables them to work safely, efficiently, ethically, and with mutual respect, consistent with the values of free inquiry, competition, openness, and fairness.

[SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION] NSTC established JCORE in May 2019. JCORE is working to address key areas that impact the U.S. research enterprise; enabling a culture supportive of the values and ethical norms critical to world-leading science and technology. This includes the need to improve safety and inclusivity, integrity, and security of research settings while balancing accountability and productivity.

Specifically, JCORE is working to:

 Ensure rigor and integrity in research: This subcommittee is identifying cross-agency principles, priorities, and actions to enhance research integrity, rigor, reproducibility, and replicability. This includes exploring how Federal government agencies and stakeholder groups, including research institutions, publishers, researchers, industry, non-profit and philanthropic organizations, and others, can work collaboratively to support activities that facilitate research rigor and integrity through efforts to address transparency, incentives, communication, training and other areas.

Coordinate administrative requirements for Federally-funded research:This subcommittee is identifying and assessing opportunities to coordinate agency policies and requirements related to Federal grant processes and conflicts of interest disclosure. Additionally, this subcommittee is also exploring how persistent digital identifiers and researcher profile databases can be used to reduce administrative work and track agency investments.

Strengthen the security of America’s S&T research enterprise:This subcommittee is working to enhance risk assessment and management, coordinate outreach and engagement across the research enterprise, strengthen disclosure requirements and policies, enhance oversight and vigilance, and work with organizations that perform research to develop best practices that can be applied across all sectors. The subcommittee is taking a risk-based approach to strengthening the security of our research enterprise balanced with maintaining appropriate levels of openness that underpins American global leadership in science and technology.

Foster safe, inclusive, and equitable research environmentsThis subcommittee is convening the multi-sector research community to identify challenges and opportunities, share best practices, utilize case studies, and share lessons learned in order to promote practices and cultures that build safe, inclusive, and equitable research environments.

The Federal Register RFI then expands on all this in considerable detail, asking questions about specifics with respect to each of these aspirations. Scientists are asking the questions. Participation is voluntary. The aim is clearly to help. 

So why should scientists be anxious? 

We should be concerned because OSTP is not chasing some will-o-the-wisp. There would be no request for information on these topics if there were no problem. Further, when it comes to these matters, especially the first and the last, the concern is largely resulting from scientist-misbehavior, not culpability on the part of the larger society. And the problem isn’t confined to a few extreme instances and a handful of bad actors. The problems are often more subtle – but rather more pervasive. 

Science as we practice it here in the United States could stand some improvement. The U.S. research environment is not “fully welcoming to all individuals” – not to the LGBTQ community, not to underrepresented ethnic groups, not even to the female half of the population. Not all scientists are able to “work safely, efficiently, ethically, and with mutual respect.” On-the-ground reality is not everywhere consistent with “the values of free inquiry, competition, openness, and fairness.”

If administrative burdens have increased in recent years (another of the OSTP concerns), it’s at least in part because agencies and policymakers are attempting to compensate for the science community’s inaction in the face of these increasingly visible realities. If administrative burdens fall heavier on us in the future, it will likely be the result of regulations attempting to enforce a degree of rigor and integrity, and levels of safety, inclusion, and equity, that we’ve been proved unable or unwilling to provide on our own. Universities, corporations, agencies, and non-profits are all trying to mend the situation, through means such as policy statements, codes of conduct, training, and greater efforts to recruit from under-represented groups. Perhaps it’s early days, but any improvement seems ephemeral: minimal, sporadic, anecdotal, and fleeting.

It’s therefore likely that in time, OSTP requests for information like this one will be followed by Congressional and executive-branch-wide imposition of new rules and regulations. That will lead to heavier, unwanted administrative burdens, but we will have brought this on ourselves.

In light of all this, what should scientists do? It’s tempting for the institutions most affected to point to the actions they’re taking – those afore-mentioned policy statements, training programs, recruiting measures, etc. – and say “we’re doing all we can.” But such top-down, command-and-control measures are unlikely to work.

Here are two additional ideas. Both are individual actions you and I can take coming out of the gate; they don’t require that we get buy-in from others, or wait for anyone else to join. In and of themselves, they won’t be enough to change things. But they will start to change the way we engage with others, and ultimately, drive outcomes in a better direction.  

  1. Own the problemAlcoholics Anonymous covers this, stressing the importance of a first step: “admitting we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” In the same way, you and I need to be unflinchingly realistic and evidence-based about our shortcomings. We need to acknowledge, at least to ourselves, or starting with ourselves (because AA’s twelve steps only begin here; they move on to accountability and other measures). The alcoholics at greatest risk from their addiction are those who remain in denial. In the same way, until we’re open to our own complicity when it comes to scientific rigor and integrity, we’ll remain content simply to judge others and do little more. Too many of us in the science community think our methods of reasoning, and reasoning power, are superior to that of others. And we don’t stop there. We think we’re not just more rational, but actually better people. This is hardly the best foundation for self-improvement. It’s far more realistic and healthy to see ourselves as possessing the massive character flaws that are so evident in everyone else we know. 

A colleague here at AMS reminds me occasionally (and compellingly), “the scientist should always be the severest critic of his/her own work.” In the same way, each of us needs to be the severest critic of our own integrity, our own ethical standards and values. We need to add this topic to our discourse, but we also need to model the desired behavior.

  • Ownership having been established, engage in some self-reflection. The Eugene Peterson quote at the top of the post speaks to this. Peterson, a pastor himself, said at the outset that the very notion of “pastor” should imply “contemplative.” Adding that adjective should be unnecessarily redundant. He went on to argue that pastors should also be inherently, and by their inmost nature, unbusysubversive, and apocalyptic. But, he says, look at the pastoral community, and you’ll find some of the most stressed, anxious, timid, establishment-minded people you’d ever hope to meet.

In the same way, no one should have to say, the honest scientist; thee inclusive scientist; the non-abusive scientist.

You and I would do well to contemplate what it was that made us eager to enter science in the first place: a sense of wonder at nature, a curiosity about how things worked, and the unmatched joy that comes not just from advancing knowledge, but seeing it used to better the human condition and the planet itself. We didn’t enter science to become rich, or famous, or powerful, or any of these inferior things.

The holiday season might be a good time to recommit to this.


[1]Interested in a bit of this seasonal history? You can find a fuller account (one of many) here.

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