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Exposing the pressures faced by modern researchers, a nanoscientist calls for change

The Secret Life of Science: How it Really Works and Why It Matters

Jeremy J. Baumberg
Princeton University Press
248 pp.
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Although there are many statistics lurking behind Jeremy Baumberg’s The Secret Life of Science, I suspect that one key figure prompted the entire project. Early on in this short and accessibly written book, Baumberg cites a 2013 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimate that there are roughly 8 million scientists in the world—a number that is currently rising at about 4% annually, nearly four times the rate of world population growth. Science may be growing fast, but it is not growing evenly, with growth rates in countries such as China, India, Brazil, and Korea hovering at around 10% per year, whereas those in North America, the European Union, and Japan are increasing at less than 2%.
What are all these scientists actually doing, he asks? And can they keep on going like this indefinitely?

A lover of science and a scientist himself, Baumberg cautiously advocates on behalf of what he sees as an ecosystem under too much pressure. The very success of science, he argues, may pose the gravest threat to its continued effectiveness as intense competition for everything from jobs, funding, publication space (notably, in this journal), and conference slots results in too much bandwagon science and not enough diversity of ideas.

The ideas that Baumberg hopes to provoke with his book aren’t scientific ones but new ways of thinking about how to fund and incentivize scientific research so as to produce the most benefits for the most people. What he sees as the inefficiency of the current system clearly irks him, and yet, he also recognizes that simple metrics and top-down managerialism can have pernicious effects.

Baumberg leans heavily on the metaphor of the ecosystem, using it to populate his picture of the world of science with the flora and fauna of funding bodies; universities and industry labs; journals and databases; newspapers and television; and last but not least, the industry researchers, academics, students, and postdocs who actually do the science. The public hovers somewhere in the atmosphere above this tangled bank, sucking up the knowledge and useful applications that are exhaled by this vast system.

Although it strains under sustained pressure, Baumberg’s ecosystem metaphor allows him to distinguish usefully between the concrete societal benefits of new medicines and technology and the pure beauty of scientific knowledge. Taking a broader view of what science is good for—not just “goods” but also “services”—would allow us to enlarge our vision of a worthwhile scientific output, he suggests. This might include, for example, the production of interesting, valuable, and inspiring scientific lives. (Richard Feynman is given as an example.)


“This was not a chapter I was planning to write” is the first sentence of Baumberg’s accordingly brief but nevertheless essential last chapter of the book, titled “Changing the Ecosystem.” Having diagnosed both complexity and a dangerous homogeneity creeping into science as a result of excessive competition, he must decide what, if anything, to offer as a potential solution.

Here, the natural metaphor breaks down. Real ecosystems work best when free of human intervention, but the science ecosystem, as Baumberg has described it, is crying out for some creative pruning and fertilizing. His suggested solutions are more akin to PowerPoint slides than fully developed points but are still welcome.

One suggestion is for metrics that value leadership, collaboration, and cooperation alongside traditional factors such as citation indices. Even more modestly, but perhaps more fundamentally, Baumberg urges the basic recognition of what effects the expansion of science will have in the future.

Here, he also mentions ethnic and gender diversity, a topic otherwise surprisingly neglected in a book championing the need for a more varied approach to science. A partial solution could be found, he suggests, in the development of so-called “anarchic”—that is, varied—ways to fund science and mitigate the unhelpful bandwagon effect.

It’s not enough to push for more science, he suggests; we must also advocate for more ways of deciding what science gets funded. What those might be, however, remains unclear. Using artificial intelligence to identify the best scientific problems, creating consultancy companies to support postdoctoral researchers, and funding science “curators” who act as connectors and “techno-bullshit” detectors are ideas that deserve more time than Baumberg gives them.

“But what is it for?” is a question more often asked of humanities scholars about their research than of scientists. What Baumberg shows is that there are surprisingly few good answers to the question of what science is (and should be) for. Although this short and sometimes frustrating book (it lacks a single reference, referring readers to a companion website) raises many more questions than it answers, that may be, in the end, exactly what Baumberg was aiming for.

About the author

The reviewer is the author of The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014).