Too many science
As Nature started a special issue of it, the too-many-PhD topic reached a new heated status. However I feel that the problem people really worry with is not about PhD, but the whole scientific infrastructure, although this case the problem becomes even nowhere to start with.
I really feel that we do not need so many scientists and research projects. I keep following the latest research by RSS subscription of major journals of my interested fields. It turns out that I skip 90% of the titles because these papers give no new knowledge, being only the publish-or-perish asignment of the authors. A huge amount of papers published, hence experiments done, hence money granted and resources used, is only for the positive feedback of the publish-or-perish fear nowadays ruling the whole scientific infrastructure. “Too many PhD” is only the side effect.
Many scientists feel the grave pressure of peer-reviewing burden. They find themselves reviewing mediocre papers and applications nonstop, meanwhile fabricating mediocre papers and applications nonstop. Publishers expand their flagships of “high impact journals” at a scary speed — just have a look at the new journals of ACS these years. What’s essentially different between Nano Lett. and ACS Nano? And this works just because the price is on the university libraries, who have to pay the subscription however high the cost it may be in order not to fall behind.
The free market fails to react against the overproduction of PhD because the publishing-or-perishing professors need more PhD students constantly to complete more research projects. If the young people, seeing the bad market feedback of the PhD degrees, refuse to go for PhD study, the professors will blame the government and the society, for not doing enough to encourage young people’s interest in science in high schools, or to create the positive and fun side of science among the public. So even more money have to spent on this, too, and really successfully, in attracting more young people into the in fact not-so-promising PhD career.
Too many PhD, too many papers, too many journals, and too much money spent on science… these are all heated topics in recent years but just the side effects of too much science.
To select or to culture?
Education in China have long suffering and been criticized of the wrong emphasis on selecting the talented rather than culturing them. Our high schools and universities teach weird but complex things which have no effect on establishing good personality and thoughts but quite effective in selecting those with higher IQ. And the society understands this, so in the labor market the employers care nothing about your field of training but only your level of academic degree. There is no hope that the professional training system really teaches the students things. The only hope lies in the IQ represented in how many levels of tests the candidate has overcome. Candidates with higher IQ, even though knowing nothing about the profession, at least learns faster. The result is the lack of professionalism in today’s China. This is the effect of a system paying too much emphasis on selecting talents.
Things seem quite similar in our scientific infrastructure globally. Unfortunately, we cannot tell in advance who is more talented in doing really high impact research (twofolds: not knowing who can, and not knowing which is high impact), so the only, though not quite intelligent, way is to first let all people do something before selecting those that really can do science. We select these excellent candidates out by evaluating many things such as citations, the h-index, etc., which is also a topic in constant debate. Then we reward them with research funding, which defines their survival in the whole field, and creates the publish-and-perish rush. As said, this is unfortunate but necessary.
So similar to China’s ill education system which selects rather than cultures youth, the selecting rather than culturing scientific infrastructure also generates many weird but complex research projects. Money has been spent on these projects most of which being just brushed off, and even more money has to spent on the rest excellent candidates because now they are going to do really high impact research. Who cares the actual quality of the research? The peers? Oftentimes the answer is that even the peers know limitedly about how good is the research. They as well rely on the selecting feature of the whole infrastructure, i.e. citation, h-index, etc. After all, who knows which research project will lead to the final cure of cancer, although all of them claims so?
It costs to know more
And people tend to ignore this bad news as if they don’t know this simple fact at all.
Our botanists have discovered the cell, and in the cell protoplasm, and in that protoplasm still something more, and in that atom yet another thing. It is evident that these occupations will not end for a long time to come, because it is obvious that there can be no end to them, and therefore the scientist has no time to devote to those things which are necessary to the people.
– Leo Tolstoy, On the Significance of Science and Art, Chapter IV
The huge input of money allows scientists today to push toward the finest ends in every finest discipline. The need to know and control the nature is unlimited, so is the cost. It costs exponentially more to see the atoms than to see the cells, now we have to even set up the LHC to see even more. When it comes to control, an example is the EU’s REACH, which will cost €9.5 billion and 54 million animals on toxicity testing over the next decade, said some research. However, REACH’s “white list’ policy ensures the most control on the unknown nature of chemical safety. We seem too eager and generous in knowing more about the nature than what the nature can support us to do so. And no one can give the most authorized selection to reduce this “to-know” list so we have no choice but go on.