How evolution can change science for the better

Current reforms to end the 'rat race' between scientists can help; but are they enough?

January 28, 2021

Science is society’s best method for understanding the world. Yet many scientists are unhappy with the way it works, and there are growing concerns that there is something “broken” in current scientific practice.

Many of the rules and procedures that are meant to promote innovative research are little more than historical precedents with little reason to suppose they encourage efficient or reliable discoveries. Worse, they can have perverse side-effects that harm both science and scientists. A well-known example is the general preference for positive over negative results, which creates a “publication bias” — giving the false impression that certain effects exist, where in reality the dissenting evidence simply fails to be released. people in a classroom setting Image provided by the Anthro Illustrated project ( Download Full Image

Arizona State University researchers Thomas Morgan and Minhua Yan, working with ASU graduate Leo Tiokhin, now at Univ­ersity of Technology Eindhoven in the Netherlands, have developed a new model, published this week in Nature Human Behaviour, to better understand the challenges facing the scientific process and how we can make it better. They focused on the “priority rule”: the tendency for the first scientist to document a finding to be disproportionately rewarded with prestige, prizes and career opportunities while those in second place get little to no recognition.

Winner takes all

Many scientists have sleepless nights worrying about being “scooped” — fearing that their work won’t be considered “novel” enough for the highest-impact scientific journals because a different group working on the same topic manages to publish first. The priority rule has been around for centuries. In the 17th century, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz haggled over who invented calculus. And in the 19th century, Charles Darwin rushed to publish “On the Origin of Species” to avoid being scooped by Alfred Russel Wallace. 

“Rewarding priority is understandable and has some benefits. However, it comes at a cost,” Tiokhin said. “Rewards for priority may tempt scientists to sacrifice the quality of their research and cut corners.”

“The idea is that competition encourages scientists to work hard and efficiently, such that discoveries are made quickly," said Morgan, a research affiliate with the Institute of Human Origins and associate professor with the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. "But if everyone is working hard, and you need to come in first to be successful, then there’s a temptation to cut corners to maximize your chances, even if it means the science suffers.” 

This is partly why some academic publishers, such as PLOS and eLife, now offer “scoop protection,” allowing researchers to publish findings identical to those already published within a certain timeframe. The problem is that science and publishers currently don’t have a good idea about whether these reforms make sense.

Modeling the priority rule

To figure out how exactly the preference for priority affects science, and whether recent reforms offer any solution for its potential drawbacks, the collaborators developed an “evolutionary agent-based model.” This computer model simulates how a group of scientists investigate or abandon research questions, depending on their own results and the behavior of other scientists they compete against.
“The benefit of an evolutionary simulation is that we don’t need to specify in advance how scientists behave. We just create a world in which success is rewarded, and we let selection figure out what kinds of behavior this favors,” Morgan said. “We can then vary what it means to successful — for instance, whether or not it’s critical to come first — and see how selection changes the behavior of scientists in response. We can also measure the benefit to society — are scientists being efficient? Are their findings accurate? And so on.” 

No panacea

The researchers found that a culture of excessive rewards for priority can have harmful effects. Among other things, it motivates scientists to conduct “quick and dirty” studies, so that they can be first to publish. This reduces the quality of their work and harms the reliability of science as a whole. 

The model also suggests that scoop protection, as introduced by PLOS and eLife, works.

“It reduces the temptation to rush the research and gives researchers more time to collect additional data,” Tiokhin said. “However, scoop protection is no panacea.” 

This is because scoop protection motivates some scientists to continue with a research line even after several results on that topic have been published, which reduces the total number of research questions the scientific community can address.

The ‘benefit’ of inefficiency

Scoop protection reforms in themselves, while helpful, are not sufficient to guarantee high-quality research or a reliable published literature. The model also shows that even with scoop protection, scientists will be tempted to run many small studies if new studies are cheap and easy to set up and the rewards for negative results are high. This suggests that measures that force scientists to invest more heavily in each study, such as asking scientists to preregister their studies or get their research plans criticized before they begin collecting data, can help.

“We also learned that inefficiency in science is not always a bad thing. On the contrary —  inefficiencies force researchers to think twice before starting a new study,” Tiokhin said. 

Another option is to make large-scale data collection so straightforward that there is less incentive to skimp on data, alternatively, reviewers and journals could be more vigilant in looking out for “underpowered” studies with small sample sizes.


This project is an example of metascience, the use of the scientific method to study science itself.

“It was a great pleasure to be part of this project. I got to use my modeling skills not only to make specific scientific discoveries, but also to shed light on how the scientific procedure itself should be designed to increase research quality and credibility. This benefits the whole scientific community and ultimately, the whole society,” said Yan, a graduate student in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

Article published in Nature Human Behaviour, “Competition for priority harms the reliability of science but reforms can help,” Leonid Tiokhin, Minhua Yan, Thomas J.H. Morgan.

Written by Julie Russ (ASU) and H.G.P van Appeven (Eindhoven University of Technology).

Donations to Watts College during Campaign ASU 2020 total about $70 million, surpassing goal of $60 million

January 28, 2021

Donors gave about $70 million over the past 10 years to expand Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions’ programs, support its students, increase its research impact and drive its community service.

The total surpassed Watts College’s goal of $60 million set in 2010 for the decadelong Arizona State University fundraising drive Campaign ASU 2020, said Matt Ingram, the college’s senior director of development. Watts College, sign, Arizona State University Download Full Image

The college fundraising total’s largest component was Mike and Cindy Watts’ 2018 gift of $30 million to the college that now bears their last name.

The Watts investment will have tremendous and long-lasting impact on the futures of hundreds of students; the research, teaching and service of dozens of faculty members; and the improved lives of thousands of residents of the community beyond Arizona State University’s campuses.

Though they differed in amounts, monetary and in-kind gifts to the Watts College throughout the campaign were made with the same aim: to help the college fulfill its mission to “be the solution” to society’s many challenges and thus make the world a better place. According to Ingram, many of the donations over the decade totaled less than $100 apiece – but the collective impact was significant.

Here are a few highlights of Watts College-based programs supported by the last 10 years of giving:

  • The $30 million gift in October 2018 from Mike and Cindy Watts, who grew up in the west Phoenix community of Maryvale, is furthering ASU’s mission to increase access to higher education and to partner with the community. The gift included the launch of an comprehensive, long-term initiative to catalyze and support community development in Maryvale, a neighborhood in the city of Phoenix that is generally lower income, struggling with educational attainment, but highly diverse and youthful.
  • After spending most of his life living with the effects of muscular dystrophy, 1997 School of Criminology and Criminal Justice (SCCJ) graduate Christopher Rearley passed away in December 2007 at age 33. His parents, Carolyn and Bob Rearley, honored him and the field he studied by hosting an annual poker tournament. In 12 years it raised more than $130,000 for SCCJ students with disabilities — the school’s largest scholarship endowment ever, according to school officials.
  • The Florence Eckstein Social Work Fellowship, for students pursuing a Master of Social Work degree, is named for Phoenix native Florence Eckstein, former publisher and executive editor of the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix (1981-2013). It is awarded each fall through the generous support of Paul and Florence Eckstein.
  • An initial grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust created the Bridging Success program in 2015. Dozens of students who at one time were in the state foster care system are involved in the program, designed to help them through challenges particular to their experiences and achieve their goals of receiving an ASU degree. 
  • ASU alumnus Todd Lemay was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a brittle-bone disease that has led him to use a wheelchair for most of his life. Lemay was on the hunt for an all-terrain wheelchair and stumbled upon a company in the United Kingdom named TerrainHopper, an electrically powered off-road mobility vehicle that can conquer the type of challenging terrain a normal wheelchair can’t. He requested licensing, manufacturing and U.S. distribution rights. Lemay opened his own shop in Tempe in 2017 as TerrainHopperUSA. Lemay donated a TerrainHopper — they start at $18,000 — to the Watts College so that other students with disabilities can participate in outdoor adventures alongside their able-bodied counterparts.
  • When the Watts College-based Public Service Academy (PSA) debuted in 2015, its intention was to educate the next generation of public servants. At the time, it was the only program of its kind in the country, supported by a $1.2 million gift from ASU President Michael Crow and his wife, Sybil Francis. A new partnership between Watts College and the Volcker Alliance is helping other universities establish their own academies. The college and the alliance recently launched the Next Generation Service Partnership. Four other universities are working to establish programs of their own in 2021.
  • Students with a passion for public service can apply to be one of the Cantelme Scholars, named for retired Phoenix Fire Capt. Pat Cantelme, who is co-founder, president and chairman of the board of the CDH Charitable Foundation. The Cantelme Scholars program resides within the Public Service Academy.
  • Laura Orr, the student and academic services manager of the School of Social Work, retired in 2018 after devoting 47 years of service to the university. The Laura Orr Memorial Scholarship Fund directly supports students studying for bachelor’s or master’s degrees in social work.
  • The Spirit of Service Scholars program honors outstanding students from all disciplines who are passionate about public service leadership and advocacy. Selected students receive a $5,000 scholarship and engage in public service leadership through a year-round program administered by the Watts College-based Congressman Ed Pastor Center for Politics and Public Service.
  • The Marvin Andrews Fellowship in Urban Management, named for the respected former Phoenix city manager, benefits selected students pursuing a master’s degree in urban management. Fellows receive a tuition waiver for four fall/spring semesters, an annual stipend of $15,000, health insurance and financial support to assist with travel to annual conferences.
  • In December, the family of Watts College Dean Jonathan Koppell capped off the campaign by creating a scholarship fund in the name of his grandmothers. Read about them and the fund here.

Material for summaries of supported programs is from earlier stories by Mark Scarp of Watts College, Marshall Terrill of ASU Now and Jane Lee of ASU Enterprise Partners.