Scientific knowledge is supposed to be built piecewise—study by study, experiment by experiment—so that each new piece of knowledge rests on a firm foundation of preceding work. Discovering that influential pieces of research cannot, in fact, be replicated by other researchers in other labs is akin to discovering a foundation riddled with holes, but that’s exactly what has happened in the last few decades, in fields from chemistry to psychology. This “reproducibility crisis” has prompted soul-searching throughout the sciences, as researchers reconsider what they know and how they know it.
How did this happen? Nicole C. Nelson, an assistant professor of science and technology studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is well situated to find out. An ethnographer and historian of science, Nelson studies the assumptions that scientists make about the world and how that affects their work. She is spending her fellowship year researching the origins of the replication crisis in pre-clinical research: the experiments on animals and cell cultures that inspire the development of new pharmaceuticals.
On Wednesday night at Radcliffe, Nelson discussed the origins of the reproducibility crisis in biomedicine and proposed that any solution would require not only changing how scientists talk about uncertainty but also confronting the power dynamics in academic labs that can exacerbate reproducibility concerns. The talk was part of the institute’s Fellows’ Presentation Series, which brings the work of its 50 scholars—from across the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences—to the public.