What thoughts pass through the mind of a meta-scientist, who spends much of his time focusing on reward structures in science, when he himself is the recipient of an important award? Lakens didn’t expect to win the prize, he admits in all honesty. Ironically, he sat on a committee a while back whose job it was to try and stimulate TU/e scientists with potential to win more awards for the university. “People here tend to be too down to earth and modest,” Lakens says. “When there’s an award to be won, they usually don’t say ‘give it to me, because I’m really good.’” The committee arrived at the conclusion that you need to stimulate people by stressing how important it is for the university’s visibility to win awards. It’s easier for people when they feel that it’s not about them, but about the university,” Lakens says. When his colleagues informed him of the open nomination process for the Ammodo Science Award, he experienced that sense of unease firsthand. “I thought ‘no, why would I do that, I’m sure that there are more qualified people than me.’” He too needed to be gently pressured by those around him before he was finally convinced.
And that was just as well, because it paid off. For his fundamental research, which contributes to the efficiency and reliability of science, Lakens received the Ammodo Science Award and a sum of 350,000 euros, which allows him to finance his research in the coming years. “I’m usually not a fan of rewarding scientists individually, because I believe that research is mostly about teamwork,” Lakens says.
I believe that my research is useful, so if you’re going to give away a huge sum of money, I know what to do with it
What he likes about the Ammodo Award, is the fact that it is attributed to individuals one year, and to teams the following year. “That’s practically unique, and it shows how important it is to them, which I find rather sympathetic,” Lakens says. Naturally, he is happy to have won the award, because it allows him to further expand the scope of his research. “I believe that my research is useful, so if you’re going to give away a huge sum of money, I know what to do with it.”
Metascientist Daniël Lakens takes a critical look at the way in which scientists carry out their research. His research field is broad, but practically everything he does boils down to the following question: ‘why do we work in a certain way, and how can we improve things?’ With his groundbreaking research, Lakens has worked his way up during the past ten years to become one of the leading metascientists who made an important contribution towards improving the efficiency and reliability of research. Among other things, he underlined the importance of replication studies, criticized the prevailing reward structures in science, and drew wide attention to phenomena such as p-hacking and confirmation bias that obscure research results. Besides his work as researcher and lecturer, Lakens also chairs TU/e’s Ethical Review Board.
Lakens’ research focuses on how scientists conduct their research, but he is not an outsider. As a social scientist, he is part of the very structures he criticizes. Isn’t that problematic? Lakens paraphrases German philosopher Schopenhauer: “If you want to change a system, you first need to climb the rungs of that system; only then can you destroy the ladder. You need to arrive at a position where you can change the system.”
Lakens has climbed quite a few rungs on this proverbial ladder. The Ammodo prize isn’t the first science award attributed to him; five years ago, he was awarded a €800,000 Vidi-grant by NWO. He knows full well that he has the wind in his sail in this regard.
“This is known as the Matthew effect in social sciences. It means that every advantage increases your chances of further advantages,” Lakens says. Or, as it says in the bible: ‘To everyone who has, more will be given.’ “The activities I spent the money on increased a profile that is now being rewarded again. This award will only increase my visibility even more, and that yields an extra advantage. To me personally, as an individual, that’s nice, but it’s also problematic.” However, he isn’t blind to the positive side of his visibility and success. “This makes it even harder to ignore my criticism of the system. I function very well in the current system, and if I have problems with it, it’s not because it doesn’t work for me, but because I truly feel that it needs to change.”
Not always strewn with roses
The path that led to the Ammodo prize wasn’t always strewn with roses. Anyone who questions existing structures and tries to bring about change, can expect some resistance. “I worried a bit these past few years. I’ve been so critical that I started to worry that people might think: ‘Daniël is a bit difficult, he keeps saying that everything we do here is wrong.’ I’ve sometimes thought: perhaps I won’t succeed. People have been angry at me sometimes.” He considers the Ammodo prize an important conformation that his criticism is founded, and that his research is appreciated.
What also helps, is the fact that Lakens isn’t just critical, but constructive as well. He identifies the things that go wrong, but he also actively tries to come up with a concrete solution. Several years ago, for example, he was critical of the fact that only innovative research received attention and was rewarded, while practically no one focused on the replication of previous research. He was convinced that the practice of carrying out someone else’s research a second time is essential for the reliability of the results. He sat down with NWO to identify the concrete steps that were necessary in order to improve the situation. This led to a revolution in the field of replication research, one of Lakens’ most important contributions in the field of scientific research.
Scientists are smart people who know what they are doing, but they sometimes seem to be wearing blinders, Lakens believes. “Everyone works in a certain way, so you don’t question it. But when you ask a critical question or show them that things can be done differently, the blinders come off and they start to think: ‘Yes, why do we do it this way?’” Awareness is the first step towards improvement, according to Lakens. You can teach people how to approach their usual practice differently by asking them very simple questions, such as: ‘Why do we do things this way?’ ‘Because we’ve always done it like this’ isn’t a satisfying answer, naturally. “Still, that’s often the only answer people give when you ask the most fundamental questions.”
“Take the so-called p-value (the level of statistical significance, ed.) of 0.05, for example, which is used in every social science whenever a statistical analysis is made. Everyone uses it, by no one knows why.” Lakens developed two free online courses on statistical analysis, the first of which – Improve your statistical inferences – has been viewed almost seventy thousand times by now. The why-question is present in everything he does. It’s the question he often asks his students in his capacity as teacher, in order to make them reflect critically on their research methods, but it also features as a common thread in his podcast on science, Nullius in Verba. “I try to create greater awareness with my critical questions, simply because I feel it’s important to think about what we are doing.”
Lakens has already thought about how he intends to spend to sum of 350,000 euros. Over the past decade, he spent most of his time helping individual researchers improve their research; in the coming years, he wants to focus more on bringing people together and on finding ways to make research more efficient. “Let’s say that there are a hundred people who carry out research on a similar topic. How do you bring all these peers together? And once they’re together, how do we reach a consensus on their method?” By this he means the research method, the measuring instruments researchers use, or the differences they consider to be significant. Lakens believes there’s still much room for improvement when it comes to teamwork. “CERN is a good example of efficient collaboration, but it happens far too rarely. I would like to contribute to the improvement of collaboration among scientists.”
When Lakens reflects on the past decade, he sees that much has changed in the way people approach science. Ten years ago, for instance, hardly anyone carried out replication research, much less published it. Today, everyone finds it the most natural thing in the world. Reward structures in science have also changed. More and more people have come to accept the fact that not everyone excels at everything (or needs to excel at everything). As a result, people have more room now to do what they’re good at. And, last but not least, researchers no longer suffer from the enormous pressure to publish. “In the past, the idea was that the more you publish, the better, fortunately, that’s no longer true,” Lakens says. In short, a significant number of perverse incentives have been removed from the existing structures within science, but there’s always room for improvement. “It isn’t perfect and it never will be, because we are people after all,” Lakens admits. “But we are doing some truly excellent things together, and we’re definitely making progress.”
The Ammodo Science Award for fundamental research is intended for outstanding, intentionally recognized mid-career scientists working in the Netherlands who obtained their doctorate between five and fifteen years ago. The award ceremony will take place at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam on May 16. Click here for more information about the prize.