Since taking office in January, President Joe Biden has reaffirmed a national commitment to integrity in scholarship and research, appointing scientists to numerous leadership roles.
Educators and experts applaud these appointments and say elevating intellectual integrity in research and science will take the combined effort of universities, industry and the public, too.
Biden appointed Eric Lander — who in 2001 was the first author on a paper published in the science journal Nature that heralded human genome sequencing — to be the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Biden elevated the post to Cabinet-level status for the first time.
“How can we address stresses on academic research labs and promote creative models for federal research support?” the president asked in his January 15 letter announcing Lander’s appointment.
Some experts say that with the change in the presidential administration in the U.S., this is a moment for academia and research to review its standards, particularly given that the validity of science is sometimes questioned.
“Many Americans view scientific fact as fake news, aimed at furthering a liberal progressive agenda,” Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, told VOA. “Higher education, now more than ever, needs to be a visible force in the communities we seek to serve, demonstrating our relevance to the everyday concerns of people within those communities.”
Earl Lewis, professor of history, Afromerican and African studies at the University of Michigan, and founding director of the university’s Center for Social Solutions, said he addresses suspicions about higher education by asking skeptics if they prefer the doctor who finished first in their graduating class or the one who finished last.
“No one raises their hand” for the last in the class, Lewis said. “And I say, ‘So you do value education.’ Why is it that some of us who have been in higher education are viewed as part of the enemy class, rather than the class that can provide solutions to the problems that we all face?”
For Ivan Oransky, who is co-founder of the website Retraction Watch, the lack of quality scholarship in publishing research and reporting errors is part of the problem. Retractions are part of the solution, reporting information in published work “that is no longer reliable,” describing it as “the sort of nuclear option of correction in, in science or in academia, writ large, he told VOA.
“How willing are researchers, journals, universities, funding agencies willing to actually correct the record and actually talk about it?” Oransky asked.
But not correcting the record leads to more mistrust of data, Oransky said, and that includes scientific journals as well as the general press that reports discoveries of mass public impact.
“When I look at a news website, I’m actually much more likely to trust them if I see corrections running,” he said. “Look at how much information is coursing through that news website. You would expect some percentage of it to just be an error, not because people tried to make a mistake, but that we’re humans, we make mistakes.
“If I’m reading a website, I see that they’ve never published a correction, I run the other way,” he said.
Rohin Francis, a British cardiologist, said that a kind of overzealousness has had a hand in the erosion of the public’s trust of scholarship and education. He calls those who may mean well but fall short of accuracy in social media posts and memes, the “Yay Science!” crowd.
“I’m a cheerleader for science myself,” he said on his Medlife Crisis YouTube channel, “but I’m fully aware of the complex way we make progress, the missteps, the human biases that are superimposed on discovery and implementation, the corruption, and just the highly erratic quality of published material. Science is a messy business.”
Speaking at a video news event January 14 for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Norman Augustine, former chief executive of Lockheed Martin, called scientific research “critically important to the future quality of life in America, and to America’s position in the world.”
But “research is being badly underprioritized” in the U.S., while other nations like China are moving forward, he said.
Augustine quoted former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in China’s pursuit of technological supremacy.
“The history of modernization is in essence a history of scientific and technological progress. Scientific discovery and technological inventions have brought about new civilizations, modern industries and the rise and fall of nations. I firmly believe that science is the ultimate revolution,” Augustine said, quoting Jiabao.
“China sets goals for science,” Augustine said. “Furthermore, they meet those goals. … China has already passed the U.S. in terms of the number of doctoral degrees it awards in science and engineering. Furthermore, 19% of the baccalaureate degrees awarded in America are awarded in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
“In China, over half are awarded in those fields,” he said.
The U.S., however, “certainly can compete in innovation, do our research with higher efficiency, factors like that,” he added.