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Scientific Misconduct: Part 4 - The Costs of Hubris (cont'd)


Should Scientists Get Special Treatment?

Are scientists different from other people? Why should the public (who is footing the bill) perceive a scientist who lies about anything any differently from a politician who lies, for example, to his wife?

The public recognizes that people do not restrict dishonesty to some phases of their life, while remaining honest in others. The fact is, liars are liars whenever sufficient need arises and until they get caught. Scientists are no different.

This lack of a moral compass in science may be the beginning of the end of public confidence in academic scientists. This is especially true as unfulfilled promises mount, the real price of technology unfolds, and the public experiences the ever-increasing costs of the next technological "fix" for the problems of the last "fix." A typical example is the overly optimistic promises of a quick cure for AIDS and a protective immunization that were substituted for making hard choices about its control. (A measure of the public distrust of scientists is the constantly recurring rumor that human exposure to AIDS was the result of a biological experiment.) It is no wonder that, apparently disenchanted with institutional inaction and collegial backslapping, federal funding agencies such as the PHS and the National Science Foundation ("NSF"), and the public to which those agencies are accountable, are now demanding accountability and appropriate controls in the conduct of research at institutions receiving federal grants from PHS or NSF.

Nevertheless, some scientists want to narrow accountability for their conduct to outright plagiarism and data falsification. Apparently, even certain criminal acts would be reserved for review as "matters of education." For example, the Newsletter reports,

"Schachman cited an example of a researcher funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant who was recommended for debarment because of 'research fraud' for sexually assaulting several research assistants."

According to the Newsletter, Professor Schachman said,

"'It is a disgrace to apply the scientific misconduct concept to that.'"

Professor Schachman is wrong. Section 689.1 clearly applies to such behavior unless assaulting assistants has become an "accepted practice" in carrying out research.

The imbroglio over allegations of sexual harassment during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings underscores the depth of feeling against persons who abuse positions of power. To use sexual harassment of lab assistants as an example of a situation that should not be considered scientific misconduct is to belie a profound misunderstanding of public expectations for both private and public employment. The public does not want its tax dollars used to support individuals who sexually assault their assistants, even if the assault is done by a scientist. NSF or PHS sanctions for sexual assault of lab assistants are an excellent deterrent of a hideous crime; laboratory assistants who are sexually assaulted by their boss are entitled to every form of relief available.

Indeed, much to the apparent discomfort of some scientists, the NSF and PHS definitions of "misconduct" are not limited to plagiarism and the falsification of data. They extend to all other serious deviations from accepted practices in writing research proposals, reporting or publishing research results, and conducting the research itself.[1] This means, for example, that scientists are charged with the responsibility to see to it that their research proposal is not padded with the results of experiments that are already completed, that their lab technician uses a pipette bulb instead of her or his mouth, and that their publications are sufficient for reproduction of the reported results by others.

There is no doubt that the courts will enforce such standards in the public interest. For example, the federal courts have heard a substantial number of cases involving patents that disclosed less than all the data available to the inventor. The courts do not excuse such behavior. They almost always find that such patents fail to disclose the invention adequately and are invalid for that reason or because of the inequitable conduct of the inventor.

Nor are the federal controls on misconduct limited to principal investigators on federal research grants; they apply to everyone who works for an institution that receives federal money.[1] Since the rules specifically address acts occurring while "carrying out" (NSF) or "conducting" (PHS) research activities, any employee at a university receiving federal funding risks charges of misconduct when they accept favors from others who may be influenced by the power of their position, or otherwise act from that position as an ambitious or self-serving opportunist. If you are worried about the interpretation of what you are about to do, it is probably your individual moral compass, still functioning into the new world order, telling you not to do it.

Next -- Not Everyone is a Crook
Previous -- Recognizing Misconduct When You See It


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