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


Facing the Real Issues

Also participating in the Symposium was Estelle Fishbein, vice president and general counsel for Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. According to the Newsletter, Ms. Fishbein suggests that scientists take more responsibility in protecting themselves from misconduct charges by providing better supervision of subordinates and by refusing to be listed as a coauthor on works to which they didn't contribute.

With respect to the role of the institutions receiving the grants, the Newsletter reports that Ms. Fishbein told the panel of the importance of institutions taking their role seriously,

"Investigating misconduct, investigating fraud, should be primarily the university's business and not the government's in the first instance,' she said, but conceded, 'We have not done as good a job as we should have and I think we have brought this problem on ourselves by not being sensitive enough and not being aggressive enough in handling allegations.'"

According to the Newsletter, Ms. Fishbein warned the panel,

"'A big job for an institution is to do such a good job with its investigation that it leaves no room for the government to step in and second guess the results,' she said, even if it means using outside, disinterested investigators."

Using truly disinterested outside investigators means using at least some non-scientists.

This is a very poor time for scientists to complain about federal intervention. The crux of employment in academic science is not the conduct or misconduct of researchers, but rather their ability to obtain funding for their research. The path to tenure is no longer set by direct peer evaluation of one's teaching, research and community service, but rather by the assumption that success in funding somehow represents a talisman for academic employment. In that environment, it is not surprising that, in the words attributed to Professor Schachman in the Newsletter, there are substantial numbers of scientists who are ambitious, self-serving opportunists. Academics simply have no credible track record of investigating, much less firing peers who engage in misconduct.

If scientists and their institutions fail to take more responsibility for the misconduct that exists, the vacuum will be filled by federal regulation. Rather than complaining about federal intervention, scientists should be taking more responsibility. Rather than talking about sanctions they have never been willing to use on one another, scientists should be seeking controls that will satisfy a thoroughly disillusioned public. Scientists must realize that regulation of publicly-funded research is not only necessary for funding to continue, it is desirable for the vast majority of scientists who do not engage in misconduct.

Paradoxically, one of the most damaging federal intrusions into scientific research was accepted with relative silence. The policy changes that shifted funding criteria from supporting research probing uncharted territory to criteria that only funded extensions of existing work have had a chilling effect on scientific research in the United States.

It has always been necessary to conduct "preliminary experiments" to convince a review committee that proposed research in a new direction is feasible. However, with diminishing support for research in uncharted territory, more and more scientists who want to explore promising new leads that come to light during their research feel justified in clandestinely diverting funds from their original objectives. This widespread diversion of grant funds for unintended purposes institutionalizes misconduct. It is not surprising that constant participation in such a system shakes the bearings on many moral compasses.

The protest of some scientists against this shift in grant policy went unheard because of the applause of those it rewarded. Scientists with large laboratories and established research agendas received the greatest benefits from grants awarded for continuing the status quo. These same scientists now scream the loudest about sanctions for misconduct because the science mills that status quo funding supports make it difficult for principal investigators to even recognize all their employees, much less certify the integrity of all the data and procedures that come out of their laboratories.

It is important that scientists lead the way and implement their own regulation, because it is the scientists who know best how to make regulation work. However, as in the case of other professions, scientists should accept the fact that, at least where the public interest and/or public funding is at stake, lay persons will also participate in the control of misconduct by scientists. That too is as it should be, because it is the public that is most affected by misconduct in any profession.

Succinctly put, if scientists want their turn at the trough, they can't complain about the chaff that accompanies the wheat.

Previous -- Not Everyone is a Crook


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