As a UK parliamentary enquiry into fake news gets underway, members of parliament could take a few lessons from the history of nanotechnology. It isn’t just democracy under threat from made up stuff, it’s science too. Even more discomforting is the realization that scientists have been doing this for decades, and nobody really cares.
Despite the off high profile case causing huge amounts of harm, Andrew Wakefield and his fake MMR scare being the classic of the genre, many other scientists are guilty of fabricating claims, from the chances of their work being commercialized to the results themselves.
Hardly a funding proposal has even written in the past three decades without containing predictions of huge markets – remember the trillion dollar nanotechnology market? – new products or the creation of thousands of jobs. And this creates a self-sustaining cycle of fake products, spectacular but often uneconomic one offs that will never enter production but go generate attention.
Fake, Rinse, Repeat
Back in the golden days of carbon nanotubes we had tennis rackets, fishing rods, bits of automobiles and even baseball bats made from various nanotube composite materials. In the golden days off graphene we have tennis rackets, fishing rods, bits of automobiles, and as a decade and a half has passed, drones.
Nanotechnology even generated some fake scare stories such as Magic Nano the German bathroom cleaner linked to respiratory problems which didn’t turn out to contain any nanoparticles. It even created fake articles in scientific journals, with the memorable case of Hendrik Schon and the fake nanoelectronics results yet to be bettered as an illustration how the collective desire of the academic community and the competition between journals to publish first didn’t let small details like made up and inconsistent results get in the way of a front page story. The reproducibility crisis, often blamed on scientists being more eager to do new and publishable work than to check whether others results can be reproduced may also be a factor, although Roger Peng argues that in hard science this is less of a problem than in psychology or clinical medicine.
It’s Not About The Money
So funding is what it all comes down to, because good science takes a long time to translate into great products and no one involved has much patience, not even the scientific community. Unlike in the business world scientists are not doing this purely to enrich themselves, in fact often the opposite is true. It is to get more facilities, more students, a bigger group and do more and better science.
While universities need government money for the shiny new nanotech and graphene centres, scientists need research funding for, just about everything, but governments want all kinds of tangible economic benefits including jobs and spin out companies and that scientists are often spectacularly ill equipped to deliver.
But what do we get? Fake products. Show the politicians something sexy and they are happy and won’t query why anyone would spend half a million pounds on a graphene powered tomato. A big shiny machine that goes ‘ping’ or a dress that lights up works well (former Chancellor George Osborne could scarcely conceal his glee at seeing the amazing new graphene lightbulb), but what really impresses the people who hold the purse strings is being mentioned in the press, hence the endless scientific publicity stunts like creating the world’s smallest Christmas tree out of atoms.
There is an old legend in the world of public companies that if you can get something in the press that investors can show their friends at the golf club it doesn’t matter what kind of an absolute dog the company is, it will prevent any criticism for six months. And the same may be true of science funding, where getting attention means getting funding.
Better Fake News than a Failure
So instead of delivering tangible economic benefit which takes decades, science is being used to deliver quick clicks, a rough and meaningless metric that no one in the internet industry has used since the dawn of analytics and the heyday of nanotubes. If that same effort were to be translated into creating and funding start-ups and spin outs then there might be some tangible output, along with some inevitable failures.
But I forgot. Politicians don’t like failures, not even teeny weeny ones, but no one ever got fired for getting a fake product in the Daily Mail.