Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

Science Policy Around the Web – March 29, 2016

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By: Thaddeus Davenport, Ph.D.

Source: Ashley Fisher / Flickr

Modernizing Scientific Publishing

Handful of Biologists Went Rogue and Published Directly to Internet

Peer-reviewed scientific journals are essential for science. They motivate and reward high-quality experimental design and facilitate the dissemination of knowledge that drives innovation. A recent article in the New York Times nicely captures some of the complexity of modern scientific publishing by examining a recent push by some researchers to publish their findings directly to ‘preprint’ servers – a practice already common in physics and mathematics.

Preprint publishing has the potential to significantly speed up publishing, allowing for faster and wider dissemination of ideas into a free, modern digital forum. Some researchers worry that bypassing the traditional peer-review process might eventually erode the quality of research. Though, it could be argued that so long as articles published to preprint servers are treated as preliminary findings (as, perhaps, we should treat all findings published in even the highest tier journals), the online forum has the potential to be a more transparent, robust peer review process than the current model in which a small number of anonymous reviewers decide the value of research.

The article notes other potential hurdles to the widespread adoption of preprint publishing that are deeply embedded in the culture of research. For example, papers are the currency of science. If authors bypassed this system, they would also bypass the possibility of attaining the classic badges of honor associated with publishing in high tier journals, potentially decreasing their competitiveness when applying for jobs and grants.

A change in publishing practices will also, likely, need to coincide with a change in the culture and value system of scientific research, but it is exciting to watch publishing move into the modern world. Scientific progress thrives on new ideas, and the resources of the digital age have the potential to broaden the reach of ideas and to increase the speed of their communication. (Amy Harmon, New York Times)

Economic Policies

A “Circular Economy” to Reduce Waste and Increase Efficiency

Our current economy can largely be described by a linear flow of material in which natural resources are harvested, combined, refined, and converted into products. These products are purchased, and after some amount of use, ultimately recycled or discarded at the discretion of the owner.  In a Nature special this week, Walter R. Stahel describes the potential economic and environmental benefits of a different sort of economy – a “circular economy” – that “replaces production with sufficiency” by encouraging reuse, repair, and recycling over remanufacturing.

Originally conceived by Stahel and his colleague Geneviève Reday-Mulvey in the 1970s, the concept of a circular economy “grew out of the idea of substituting manpower for energy.” For example, Stahel observed that it requires “more labour and fewer resources to refurbish buildings than to erect new ones.” Applying this model to all products has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially and expand the workforce because “remanufacturing and repair of old goods, buildings and infrastructure creates skilled jobs in local workshops.”

To support a transition to a more circular economy, Stahel recommends – among other things in his article –  a change in the way economic success is measured. Rather than trying to maximize our gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of the flow of resources, perhaps we should attempt to optimize the “value-per-weight” or “labor-input-per-weight” of the manufactured products. Policies and tax structures designed to maximize these economic indicators might be effective in encouraging stewardship of the earth’s limited resources and cultivating job growth. (Walter R. Stahel, Nature News)

A Second Chance for Grants

New funding matchmaker will cater to NIH rejects

The majority of NIH grant applications do not receive funding, not necessarily because the applications are of poor quality, but rather because there are simply more good ideas than the government has the capacity to support. A recent article in Science news by Kelly Servick describes a pilot program started earlier this month by NIH in collaboration with Leidos to address this gap in funding.

The program, known as OnPAR, aims to establish a more open market in which NIH grant applications that score well (within the thirtieth percentile) but do not receive funding would then be made available to private organizations and funding agencies for consideration. It seems that this system would be of substantial benefit to grantwriters – increasing the efficiency of grant-writing and review by allowing “recycling” of grants and their associated peer reviews, which are expensive to produce in terms of time and energy, and thus, money.

Funding agencies may see value in this program through expanded access, possibly finding themselves in the position to fund and motivate inquiry for researchers who may not have applied to their organization directly. However, private funding agencies are often in a position similar to that of the federal government – they receive more good applications than they have resources to support, and Servick notes that “the success of the project will hinge on whether private funders see value in using OnPAR in addition to their existing grant review process.”

If funders do find value in OnPAR, it is conceivable that they might allocate a percentage of their annual budget for OnPAR grants. Time will reveal the ultimate value of OnPAR, but it is a step in the right direction. How else might we increase the efficiency of the scientific production cycle? (Kelly Servick, Science News)

Have an interesting science policy link?  Share it in the comments!

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 29, 2016 at 10:00 am

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