Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Here we go again

Yet another prominent, highly productive "scientist" has been caught making it all up. This time it's Dipak Das, who was director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at UCONN. His research focused on resveratrol, which you have probably heard of -- it's a compound found in red wine that has been thought to have anti-aging properties, although unfortunately it's not looking so great lately. This doesn't help, so if you have been using the whole resveratrol thing to rationalize getting schlozzed every afternoon, you'll need another excuse.

Anyhow, if you're interested (and you probably aren't), you can look at the university's investigative report here. The whole thing is (literally) 60,000 pages long but it's summarized up front. Basically, the university concludes that he was photoshopping his western blots. (That's a method for detecting specific proteins in samples.) His entire program of research was evidently fraudulent. They're stripping him of tenure and firing him. Oh yeah, they're giving up $890,000 in NIH funding. And there are more than 100 published papers which are now either shown to be fraudulent or suspect.

This and other recent cases are not starving post-docs desperately trying to compete for the few available faculty spots. You could understand that even if it's sad and bad. (Plenty of Ph.D.s are driving cabs these days.) These are very senior people with fancy titles and big time salaries, and plenty of money with which to do honest science. The moral depravity of this conduct is just astonishing. It's not just stealing money, and obstructing scientific progress. It's harming patients, maybe even killing people; and it's potentially ruining the careers of the students, fellows, post-docs and junior faculty who worked under him, not to mention the more diffuse damage to the institution and everyone connected with it. The swath of destruction is just incredible. I simply cannot believe that anything like that could happen where I work but I'm sure that's what people thought in all the places where this has happened.

So, comes now the obvious question. Why? I honestly cannot tell you. Sure, when you set out on an investigation you may have hypotheses that you cherish, that if proven true will open up a road you really want to go down. But it's nonsensical to think of a rejected hypothesis as a failure. You hear that language all the time -- the experiment "failed" -- but that's completely wrong. The experiment showed what it showed. Ruling out a hypothesis is just as much a contribution to knowledge as confirming it. Okay, that didn't work, try something else.

One problem that probably does contribute is publication bias. For reasons which are not entirely clear to me, it's usually harder to get negative results published. That never made any sense, and it is starting to change, but it's still there. Another problem is that it may be harder to get the next round of funding if you can't build directly on previous work. Proposal reviewers like it if your work so far leads logically to the proposal they are seeing now, and that may be harder to argue if you've had negative results. However, in my own work at least, I've had no problem making lemonade out of my negative results, it just takes the imagination to see their implications.

So I can only conclude that this behavior must have started way back, before the guy made it big, and it's actually been the basis of his whole career. It came to be the thing to do, in for a dime, in for a dollar. Think Bernie Madoff. Anyway, it is just enraging.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the damage to the reputation of science itself. With one of the two major political parties in the U.S. running against science as an institution and a philosophy of knowledge, we really can't afford that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was catching up on some back-reading -- Thank you for writing about this - I would have missed it. BTW - your link did not work, but Google came to the rescue

-- AnonymousL