Has science lost its scholarship?

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Businessperson and lawyer or judge having a consultation meeting, looking at a document and discussing.

A well constructed theory is in some respects undoubtedly an artistic production

Sir Ernest Rutherford

Science is fundamentally about developing ideas and testing them to gain a better understanding of the universe, not just about experimental studies that gather facts and data. Some of the greatest scientific contributions have not been about the observations themselves, but rather from the development of concepts and theory – Darwin’s ideas of natural and sexual selection must be among the most impressive examples, but there are many others.

A scientific paper twenty years ago was allowed to have much more discussion than the modern paper. Speculation and further hypothesis generation were often part of the discussion. But now many editors and journals frown on more than a minimal interpretation of the reported data. Concept-generating integrative papers, pulling together ideas from a number of areas, are now either reduced to ‘opinion pieces’ or buried in the review section in most journals.

And this disease has infected academia. A minor empirical paper may be awarded much more impact (or rating on the PBRF) than a major conceptual piece which may appear superficially just to be a literature review, but in fact represents almost the only site other than a book at which conceptual development becomes possible. Obviously there many reviews that are simply summations of the state of a particular field, and we need to recognise the difference.

But science in the end is about the developing of understandings and the validation of new ideas. Validation needs data, but disproportionately rewarding data gathering that does not develop new ideas (‘stamp collecting’) is not in the interests of the scientific enterprise. Science is not just about experiments, it is as much about scholarship. Have we lost the balance?

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