Meet 'Slow Science'

Last Updated 23 June 2014, 15:14 IST

Adherents claim that more time for deliberate, methodical research yields better science, writes Pascaline Minet.

When the Slow Movement started in 1989 with the creation of the Slow Food organisation — to protest the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome — its objectives were to promote quality over speed, to defend cultural diversity and to challenge the ever-increasing pace of our lives.

Since then, the concept has spread and expanded to such fields as travelling, designing and science.

Slow science supporters object to how modern scientific research is being conducted, and they criticise the pressure to publish as many studies as possible in scientific journals. Instead, they demand more time to carry out their research and publish their work.

These ideas were expressed in a 2010 one-page document entitled “The Slow Science Manifesto,” and published online by a group of anonymous Berlin-based researchers.“We do need time to think,” it reads.

“We do need time to digest. We cannot continuously tell you what our science means, what it will be good for, because we simply don’t know yet. Science needs time. Bear with us, while we think.”

Isabelle Stengers, philosopher at the Free University of Brussels and co-author of the book Another Science is Possible. Manifesto for a Slowing Down of Sciences, explained at a recent lecture that the manifesto ideas are relatively simple.  “But they offer the advantage of creating a consensus in which scientists who find their working conditions painful recognise themselves,” she said. 

What exactly do scientists suffer from? Mentioned most often is the assessment of their work. The most crucial criterion these days is how frequently they are published in scientific journals. Priority is given to the most prestigious publications and those that are most often quoted in other journals. These are characterised as “high-impact” journals.

“The problem is that this assessment method leads researchers, and especially the younger ones, to produce a large quantity of articles so as to reach a certain quota of citations,” explains University of Strasbourg chemist Jean-Francois Lutz.

 “The system thus favours superficial studies instead of meticulous work, and sometimes leads to fraud or results that are impossible to reproduce.” In that sense, “fast science,” like fast food, is synonymous with poor quality.

Why the need for speed?

“The slowness demanded by supporters of slow science is also necessary to what I call ‘friction’ — that is to say, exchanges with other fields and, more generally, with society,” Isabelle Stengers says. 

“Today, we believe that a scientist who reads the journals is wasting his time. The fast trend I oppose is the one that is turning the scientific community into an army capable of destroying everything that stands in its way because it must reach its destination on time.”

Stengers says that researchers are increasingly cut off from the rest of the world, and they have become so ultra-specialised that there is now a lack of imagination.

Another philosopher, Pantheon-Sorbonne University’s Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, adds, “The slow science movement also claims the right to the diversity of knowledge, according to which human and social sciences do not lend themselves well to evaluations based on productivity criteria.”

Still, she believes that scientists are barking up the wrong tree. “The fast versus slow opposition polarises the two sides of the argument and prevents it from turning into a real controversy,” she argues. 

Denis Duboule, a geneticist at the University of Geneva, is circumspect about the slow idea. “It’s true that the way research is carried out nowadays is a problem,” he says. “Scientists who publish the most are not necessarily the best, and vice versa. Some also tend to choose their research not according to their fields of interest but depending on whether they can obtain funds.

 That said, research nowadays is costly, and you have to find a way to demonstrate your results. For me, it’s more the utilitarian ambition of science that puts scientists under pressure, as it implies that each study has an immediate goal.”

Is the grueling pace really the primary cause of scientists’ unhappiness? Although not all of them agree with this diagnosis, the issue at least raises the question of how research is being conducted and assessed.

“The golden age during which scientists could think at leisure, without worrying about anything other than their work has in fact never existed, because they always had to look for funding,” says Alain Kaufman, who leads the Science-Society Interface at the University of Lausanne. 

“So there’s no point in being nostalgic. We must nonetheless denounce the speed pathologies and especially the tyranny of the impact factor.”

Such initiatives do exist, although they are still feeble. Last year, scientists and scientific journal editors published The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, which “recognises the need to improve the ways in which the outputs of scientific research are evaluated.”

“When scientists are recruited in particular, we should take into account not only how many articles they have published but also look into the contents and other aspects of their work,” Kaufman says. 

The argument seems to have convinced some in Switzerland, where the Swiss National Science Foundation now tries to take these considerations into account.

(Published 23 June 2014, 15:14 IST)

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