Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

More on scientific misconduct

As long-time readers know, the integrity of science is something of a hobby horse of mine. There is enormous pressure on academic researchers to publish, to publish in high impact journals, and to develop programs of research that will attract support from funders. In the biomedical sciences in particular, there is enough financial sponsorship for research that many university faculty members do not have teaching responsibilities. They also do not have tenure, and are dependent on continuing grant support for their jobs. But even tenured scientists face pressure to produce results that will keep their reputations burnished and the grants flowing.

This obviously can create temptation to publish compelling results, and that leads some people to commit fraud. It probably should not be surprising when early stage investigators who are just trying to get a step up on the career ladder succumb, but more so when senior people do. Universities, however, often react defensively, as we have seen with many recent high profile sexual harassment cases. Participants in a recent "summit" meeting on the issue discuss the problem here. Universities are generally responsible for investigating allegations of scientific  misconduct -- there isn't any science police and even funders, including the National Institutes of Health, have limited resources to investigate misconduct and must largely rely on scientists' employers.

According to the linked article, referring to the Inspector General of the National Science Foundation:

A partial list of shortcomings that the OIG staff has compiled and shared at conferences includes the following:
  • Investigative reports that lack supporting evidence and fail to address the elements of a research misconduct finding, particularly intent;
  • Individuals who are the subjects of the investigation blaming the student or postdoctoral researchers, but the investigative committee never interviewing these individuals;
  • Accepting, without question, excuses by the subjects of the investigation; and
  • Relying only on information in allegations, not checking for patterns or other misconduct.
The reason for such cursory investigations is, obviously, that the authorities who conduct investigations don't want to generate bad news for their own departments and schools. Better to sweep it under the rug. However, scientific fraud is an extremely serious transgression that can directly kill people, as well as leading to the waste of millions of dollars and leading other researchers down blind alleys.  Here's a story from Retraction Watch about an Ohio State's investigation of a scientist who collected $8 million in federal grants and whose fraud led to a clinical trial of a compound. (The trials may be resumed as there is support for the value of the molecule even without the fraudulent results. Nevertheless the danger to humans of such conduct should be obvious.) He held an endowed chair and was paid more than $200,000 a year.  The whole story of the fraud is here.

As it turns out, OSU's investigation was pretty good, though not perfect. They have turned the results over to the Office of Research Integrity at HHS which can issue its own findings. But as I say, ORI is dependent on the university investigation.

Do we need a better way? It's hard to say. Fraud of this nature infects a small percentage of scientific output, and perhaps the culture of universities can evolve enough to take this more seriously. But the shame of this needs to be far more profound. It's downright evil.

1 comment:

Justin Cohen said...

Today's blog gives excellent reasons why corporations, higher educational institutions, and other large organizations cannot be trusted to investigate themselves. And when it comes to countries that need to be investigated, or their leaders, it's an immensely larger problem.