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Cornell University


Saturday, October 28, 2017
Restoring rigor to science

Tony Bretcher, Paula Cohen, Richard Harris & Marjolein van der Meulen

The Cornell community had the opportunity to attend a public talk and two faculty panels with NPR Correspondent, Richard Harris on October 26-27. Invited by the Departments of Horticulture, Biomedical Sciences, and the BEST Program, Mr. Harris delivered the lecture from his recent book, Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope and Wastes Billions, and 30 years of science reporting.

In addition, BESTie Victor Aguilar wrote an article for The Cornell Daily Sun he entitled "Perils in the Pursuit for Scientific Novelty"

Over 200 faculty, students and staff attended these events and gave us enthusiastic feedback regarding what they learned:

"For me this was a confirmation that the field of biomedical sciences is in trouble with respect to its incentive structure and the way it trains trainees. It was great seeing some semblance of a movement of people who feel the way I do. I am encouraged to keep thinking about how to fix things."-PhD student

"The reproducibility crisis for scientific studies needs to be addressed by scientists. The public press is examining the situation rigorously and public opinions about science are being shaped by the stories being written. Many causes of the crisis have been suggested, but it will be difficult to fix. Contributors are short-term uncertain funding of science that creates a competitive climate and incentive to move fast to publication before thorough testing is complete. Scientists are not being held accountable for irreproducible findings."-Faculty

"We talk about the issues of rigor and reproducibility a lot in my lab, but it was nice to see that many other people are thinking about these issues too, and I enjoyed getting other perspectives about them."-PhD student

"There is no easy solution for changing the University culture on tenure evaluation more toward meaningful and accurate contributions and production, and funding numbers still and will dictate outcomes."-Staff

"Our modern scientific value system is leading to a distortion of science."-Undergraduate student

"That the future of science is bright but we must reevaluate what our goals are for publishing papers."-Undergraduate student

"Reproducibility and rigor is a significant issue in biomedical and likely other sciences. This deserves much more attention."-Faculty

"Live up to a standard of excellence in whatever you do, regardless of the day-to-day pressures to "produce more."-Staff

"That there is a lot of sloppy science out there, and the public perceives science as sloppy sometimes, we need to change this perception"-PhD student

"For me, the most relevant concern was that of making sure samples are what they are supposed to be and are consistent across the experiment.  We almost got fooled by a mutant from the stock center.  It was what they said it was, but it also had a background mutation causing the phenotype we were interested in."-Faculty

"Most of what is published in "peer-reviewed" journals is not replicable - even by the original scientists. When certain research findings get cited over and over, it causes perhaps non-significant or even wrong findings to become accepted as facts"-Faculty

"From the faculty panels I attended, it was evident that Cornell is ahead of the curve in the areas of: education of students and faculty on rigor and reproducibility, and the common standards of ethical research practice in biomedical research. More could be done to improve faculty mentoring across the board (though there are so many great examples on campus!)"-Staff

Additional comments:

"We need better measures of reproducibility and more financial stability."-PhD student

"Although I was vaguely aware of it prior to Mr. Harris' presentation, I did not realize how weak the current peer-review system is. One published paper subjected to a non-robust science process can propagate significant effects throughout the scientific community (e.g. HeLa cells)."-PhD student

"Not all science is being as authenticated as it should be, and it is dangerous for academics and citizens alike."-Undergraduate student

"That scientific publications are often irreproducible, and it may be due to financial pressure."-Faculty

"There is a real credibility problem with academic scientists, who are paid by the taxpayers."-Faculty

"Reminded that our research community should take a responsibility of irresponsible research results."-Faculty

"The necessity for change in academic science."-PhD student

"There are no clear solutions to the problem that unethical/fraudulent behavior is often rewarded and infrequently penalized in the current system of publish or perish. The problem is not limited to trainees!"-Staff

"Academia has indeed a big problem with how things work: the obsession with publishing papers instead of doing good work, how funding works, the lack of focus on non-academic jobs and prospects for graduate students, etc".-PhD student

"I interpreted the current policy and system of funding for science to be outdated in light of the current realities."-PhD student