Research: Against a law of inequalities

Francois Massol
Dec 10, 2019 · 5 min read

A letter to Messrs Petit and Macron, and to all those who believe that human societies should function by competition.

[If you agree with this text, please sign its French version here]

[link to the original version in French]

For many years, successive governments have sought to highlight competition as a driving force for improving the efficiency of public services. The latest example concerns the world of research and comes from Antoine Petit, President of the CNRS, in an article published by Les Echos (26/11/2019). Referring to the future Multi-Year Research Programming Law, Mr. Petit called for [translated from French] “an ambitious, unequal law — yes, unequal, a virtuous and Darwinian law, which supports the most productive scientists, teams, laboratories and institutions on an international scale, a law that mobilizes energies.” These comments have already provoked reactions from researchers in two forums published simultaneously by the newspaper Le Monde (here and here) last week.

We, the actors of public research, now collectively wish to challenge Mr. Petit and all those who believe that competition is the solution for improving how our societies function: since Charles Darwin, more than 150 years of research have taught us that natural selection is not a process of collective optimization. On the contrary, natural selection operates at the individual level, favouring the characteristics of those who can survive and reproduce, sometimes to the detriment of the group or even the species. In evolutionary biology, there are countless examples of “evolutionary dead-ends” or even “evolutionary suicides”, in which the short-term benefits for individuals eventually lead to the extinction of an entire population.

If the objective of the future law on research is, as we all hope, to advance knowledge and its application to improve society, on what criteria should a so-called “Darwinian” law be based? On the allocation of most resources to the most “productive” researchers, or groups of researchers? This type of approach is dangerous as it is founded on three unjustified assumptions:

- that it is possible to objectively assess the productivity or creativity of researchers. The current trend in research evaluation has raised many questions as to its validity [1]. It is based on quantitative indicators, favouring researchers who publish the greatest quantity of scientific papers, sometimes using methods that are at best questionable (“natural selection of bad science”, [2]), at worst fraudulent [3];

- that scientific advances are achieved by a few geniuses or in a few “centres of excellence”. A review of the history of science dispels this assertion [4]. Research is primarily the work of research teams, collective and incremental experimental studies, brainstorming that enriches our perception of specific problems, and only very rarely advances via isolated flashes of genius;

- that financial resources are “better” used when they are redirected to a few individuals or research centres. Betting on a few researchers inevitably leads to a loss of scientific productivity. Indeed, the marginal productivity (in terms of knowledge produced) of a euro injected into research decreases with the amount allocated — in other words, the same amount produces more when divided among a larger number of research groups (see [5] for a synthesis on this subject).

In short, we believe that a research policy based on an excessive increase in competition will be counterproductive. It will not select researchers who promote quality science: rigour, cooperation, inventiveness, scepticism and originality. These characteristics are nonetheless essential if we are to meet the scientific challenges posed by current societal problems such as global change.

We also believe that our reasoning is valid beyond the world of research: competitive reasoning means that the individuals who make their mark are those who have understood how to meet the selection criteria. In some cases, this may go hand in hand with an increase in the common good, but this is often fortuitous. In most cases, it will result in a decrease in the common good and an increase in inequalities, particularly when reducing your investment in the collective allows you to better meet the selection criteria.

Finally, societal choices should not necessarily be inspired by nature. It is up to human societies to choose their value system using moral arguments. The effects of competition in research, and in many other sectors of society, are already causing considerable damage to human mental health (“Le blues des chercheurs français”, Le Monde 14/10/2019). Indeed, research on the subject shows that income and status inequalities are driving forces of malaise and inefficiency in all segments of society [6].

With regard to the future law on research programming, we support the recommendations put forth by the academic societies of France, recommendations which result from a long process of consultation with different research stakeholders. These recommendations identify the following priorities:

- Facilitate the organisation of research by giving back research time to researchers and professors, by restoring mutual trust between administrations and researchers, and by easing the management of laboratories through a relaxation of budgetary rules and restrictions;

- Give more support to public research by increasing the budgetary allocations to laboratories, by improving the functioning and transparency of the national research agency [ANR, the agency in charge of distributing project funds], and by assisting with the preparation of European-level funding applications and their management if obtained;

- Strengthen scientific employment by increasing permanent recruitment in all fields, contrary to the trend of the last ten years, and by improving academic careers, in particular by reducing the precariousness of young researchers;

- Boost interactions between the academic sphere and the rest of society by promoting the general value of the PhD diploma, by including public research actors in interactions with society during training and career development, and by encouraging mutually beneficial collaborations between public research and other spheres of society.

At a time when the actors of research and higher education must be paragons of scientific rigour to counter the rise of obscurantism, the emergence of a project to reorganize research based on dogmatic adherence to harmful ideas and incorrect assumptions suggests that those who would like to regulate research do not (or do not want to) understand it. Let us not misunderstand the pseudo-Darwinian justification given to this proposed law by M. Petit; reinforcing inequality cannot increase academic productivity, but does make it possible to apply the Latin maxim Divide and Impera: divide and rule. And ruling over public research that has been emptied of its vital force will certainly not improve France’s position in the academic rankings that are used as breviaries by the defenders of this project.

A collective of researchers and professors

References

[1] Gingras, Y. (2016) Bibliometrics and research evaluation: uses and abuses, The MIT Press.

[2] Smaldino, P. E. & McElreath, R. (2016) The natural selection of bad science. Royal Society Open Science, 3. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.160384

[3] Chevassus-au-Louis, N. (2019) Fraud in the lab: the high stakes of scientific research, Harvard University Press.

[4] Conner, C. (2005) A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and Low Mechanicks, Nation books.

[5] Aagaard, K., Kladakis, A. & Nielsen, M. W. (2019) Concentration or dispersal of research funding? Quantitative Science Studies, https://doi.org/10.1162/qss_a_00002

[6] Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. (2010) The spirit level: why equality is better for everyone, Penguin UK.

Written by

Chercheur en écologie évolutive au CNRS

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