I was lucky to have a career as a geologist (isotope geochemist) that allowed me to pursue problems that interested me. Sure, there were pressures to get grants, support graduate students, publish papers, get promoted, etc. But many graduates with advanced degrees are not so lucky. Universities are under pressure to attract funding. Grants supporting graduate students guarantee the graduation of more degree-holders than can be accommodated as faculty by the best institutions. The remaining people, trained in science, seek jobs where they can be found. Unfortunately some end up at low-level academic institutions where they face the same pressures, and where “directed” funding may be their only option if they cannot compete at the level of granting agencies such as the National Science Foundation. Funding often comes from sources with an axe to grind, and results can be biased toward getting the next grant. Government agencies absorb some graduates, but “research” at many of them is accomplished only if the “higher-ups” believe it is in the best interest of the agency. Even worse, legitimate research can be squelched or edited to suit the agency’s perceived goals, often involving funding and expansion. Worst are organizations that hide behind names like the Water Environment Research Foundation. This organization is largely funded by the wastewater industry (and, unfortunately, EPA), and generates slick publications that are not legitimate science found on the shelves of major academic libraries. How do the public or politicians know whether the science is legitimate? Scientists themselves can discern “sound” science from “junk” science, but how can the non-scientist make that judgment?
The first step it to look at the author’s credentials. Any legitimate scientist can provide a “Curriculum Vitae” listing appointments, publications, awards, etc. Mine is available at www.utexas.edu. Legitimate senior scientists have a long list of peer-reviewed publications in accepted academic journals, and are employed by the best academic and governmental organizations. Their credentials can be found on the organization’s web site or in its publications. Externally peer-reviewed publications (academic journal articles) are critical and demonstrate a scientist’s ability to conduct research that advances science and is judged by peers to be worthy of incorporation into the formal scientific literature. The scientist“s discipline is also important. As an example, I have heard agronomists advocate the use of sewage sludge on winter cover crops or soybeans because “it makes them grow better.” One individual involved is employed at a land-grant institution and receives funding from the wastewater industry. He is narrowly focused on maximizing agricultural productivity and has no real concern for the environmental consequences. A final step is never to accept any single scientist’s or discipline’s position, but to seek consensus. Any legitimate position can be backed by many qualified scientists in different disciplines unrelated to sources of funding, and by extensive citation of peer-reviewed articles in accepted academic journals and books. “Point-of-view” publications, no matter how slick, should be ignored, as should publications that do not disclose sources of data and previous research, or are not transparent about editorial policies or how acceptance for publication is decided. Anybody can publish anything, in print or on the internet. A librarian at an accredited academic institution can help people make these decisions.
Never forget that it’s always about the money, even in science. Just as some professionals like doctors and lawyers compromise their morals for profit, so do some scientists. A common sense argument like “do not add more fertilizer than is needed to grow a crop” should never be abandoned to “scientific” obfuscation. Scientific integrity is discussed at www.ucsusa.org.