Incredible neuroscience

Deputy Editor Annie Brookman-Byrne reports from the British Neuroscience Association’s ‘Credibility in Neuroscience’ manifesto launch at the House of Commons.

These were not words I expected to hear Professor Lord Robert Winston say to a room of neuroscience researchers, students, publishers and funders: ‘Most of the stuff you publish is crap’. But given the replication crisis across sciences, they seem fair. What surprised me even more at the launch of the BNA’s ‘Credibility in Neuroscience’ manifesto was that not all of the attendees I spoke to knew about the problems in science prior to the event. 

Luckily Professor Dorothy Bishop was there to give a short history of science’s lack of credibility. Twenty years ago, Bishop said, science wasn’t cumulative. Everybody was doing something different. Replications and null results weren’t valued and couldn’t be published. Researchers would move on to new things rather than establishing something solid. And yet these problems have been recognised since at least 1830, when scientist Charles Babbage disapproved of his peers who engaged in ‘cooking data’ – what we today call p-hacking.

But now, Bishop feels that ‘the time really has come’ to try and fix this. Things are beginning to change in part because junior scientists have been vocal about their objections to the unfair system on social media. Bishop described junior researchers as victims of the lack of credibility in science, many of whom have tried and failed to replicate studies, concluding that they must have done something wrong. The changes introduced by the BNA would therefore be welcomed positively by this willing cohort of researchers, said Bishop.

The BNA’s new manifesto outlines their commitments to support a vision for neuroscience research that is ‘robust, reliable, replicable, and reproducible’. It contains specific actions that it will undertake to ensure the credibility of neuroscience, including: awarding prizes to research groups that work towards credibility, providing training for scientists navigating new practices, and campaigning for hiring policies that value reproducibility and open science.

Despite Winston’s assessment of published neuroscience research, he also described neuroscience as the most exciting area of biology. But he said that neuroscientists don’t do a good job of sharing that excitement with the public. Winston had advice for those communicating their research; be intelligible, be brief, be modest and humble. He said to grab attention not through exaggeration, but because neuroscience is interesting. Winston said that neuroscientists should be able to explain their work to a non-scientific 16-year-old – and actually do this by going into schools.

The speakers were optimistic that problems in the field can be addressed. Dr Anne Cooke, Chief Executive of the BNA, said it feels like there’s real change happening, that people will no longer feel the need to play the game. Both Cooke and Bishop explained that there isn’t just one problem, caused by one person, with one solution – there are a range of problems and there will be multiple solutions which require working together. Bishop ended her talk with a fail-safe slogan having been inspired by the recent leaders’ debate… ‘Get credibility done!’

-       Find out more on the new BNA credibility website, and find plenty of coverage on the replication crisis in our archive.

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