Patrick Michaels

The legacy of Franklin Roosevelt is harming American science.

At the end of World War II, President Roosevelt asked Vannevar Bush, who oversaw the explosively successful Manhattan Project, if there was a way that the horde of scientists recruited to produce The Bomb could somehow be kept in government employment.

Within eight months, Bush sketched out a blueprint in which the Universities, not the government, would be the employers, but that the pay, either for faculty or for hired researchers, would actually originate from federal science agencies, cabinet departments, or the clandestines.

The consequences were obvious. Universities charge 50 percent overhead on federal grants, using these profitable science Department monies to pay for unprofitable Art and Music Departments. The seeds of political correctness—which requires big, expensive, expansive government—were planted as the schools became addicted to federal welfare.

Under unforgiving competition to secure funding for their institutions (and promotion for themselves) some scientists are behaving badly.

Last week, a technical publication, Journal of Vibration and Control, retracted sixty papers, after an internal investigation revealed a fraudulent “peer review and citation process” that greased the skids for a small number of authors to have an enormous number of citations in what is a prestigious engineering specialty. At least one of the authors even managed to review his own papers under an alias.

That’s symptomatic of a larger sickness raging in what should be our most sacrosanct of institutions. If we can no longer trust science, what do we have as the basis for knowledge?

It is a fact that the policy world—particularly the environmental policy world—claims to base policies on “science,” such as the reports of United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s periodical “National Assessments” of the impact of climate change on our country.

These influential documents are essentially large reviews of a voluminous scientific literature. The tragedy is that literature is being insidiously poisoned by the incentive structure for science itself.

The evidence is increasingly compelling. University of Montreal’s Danielle Fanelli has written several comprehensive reviews of the content of published science and he found, in the last twenty years, that the number of “positive” results is increasing dramatically. That’s when the data confirm a proposed hypothesis rather than suggesting rejection or modification.


Patrick Michaels

Patrick J. Michaels is the director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute.