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Scientific Integrity – the interaction of common human foibles and different interest groups

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Summary

Over the decades the research ideas have become more intricate (as expected) and consequently, more expensive. Therefore, to carry out justified research, a scientist needs to jazz it up with fancy buzzwords and high-sounding goals. Otherwise, it falls flat, and therefore, there is no funding for it. On the other hand, somewhere down the way, we (scientists and science administration) seem to have forgotten that research is mostly boring laborious repetitive jobs to reproduce and re-evaluate observations. Therefore, the first thing to be discarded along the way has been the due rigor of the work.

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As scientists, we are as fallible as any other human being. We might like to think otherwise, but that is clearly not true as shown by the many reports of scientific misconduct and negligence, and many more reports that may come tumbling out of the cupboard in the future. The landscape gets much more complicated and murky due to the conflicting interests of different involved parties – science administration, publishers, companies, and more. With that in mind, can we at least try to understand the route to these misconducts and whether it can be stopped or at least strongly discouraged? The rest of my monologue is not to find excuses for scientific misconduct but to fathom ways to discourage it over and above the prescribed punitive measures (which are difficult to implement and even more difficult to implement uniformly and objectively). Like most issues, it is a multi-faceted problem and should be handled, I believe, in a more multi-pronged and nuanced way.

 

Science has changed dramatically over the last many decades. If we think of the quanta of funding, it has increased many folds as the public, in general, have been convinced about the importance of science and technology in their own lives. However, with this increase in funding, there is also a clamor for the glory that is associated with it. New flashy research has been imagined, sometimes really out of thin air, to justify the shiny bauble. Oversight and bureaucracy have also increased commensurate (?) with that. Now, we may like that or rail against that but one cannot choose to have more funding with reduced oversight. We can only hope that the oversight mechanism functions properly without undue hindrance, which is of course, extremely difficult to balance. However, I believe here is the real rub. Over the decades the research ideas have become more intricate (as expected) and consequently, more expensive. Therefore, to carry out justified research, a scientist needs to jazz it up with fancy buzzwords and high-sounding goals. Otherwise, it falls flat, and therefore, there is no funding for it. On the other hand, somewhere down the way, we (scientists and science administration) seem to have forgotten that research is mostly boring laborious repetitive jobs to reproduce and re-evaluate observations. Therefore, the first thing to be discarded along the way has been the due rigor of the work.

 

The quanta of funding and the prestige associated with it are even more in the case of industrial or corporate funding and start-ups based on novel ideas. The advent of cool-sounding pharma start-ups, as also behemoths such as Google and Facebook that started out of garages of college students and dropouts, and the movies based on those, have increased the hype to be a part of that cult. With start-ups opening up a dime a dozen in every university, it feels like innovation is at an all-time high (which may very well be true) and all human problems should have been solved (which most certainly is not true). Scientists, therefore, are vying to be the next such persona with ideas that are cool sounding, far-fetched, and again sometimes just flat out made up. This is further compounded by the science administration coaxing the scientists along that path for shiny press releases that promote those scientific organizations, funding agencies, as well as the lofty goals of science as a whole. It is, thus, a feeding frenzy of glory by the various interest groups, and the interest of the people and public seem to be de-prioritized.

 

The nuances and pressures of this system are even more evident when one notices the progression of funding over the last few decades. It has been the reigning trend that funding is getting increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few older established researchers and therefore, the younger less established ones are severely handicapped (available NIH (US) data in PNAS, 114(25), 6498 (2017)). This inequality might also be causing pressure to incentivise deceitful means.

 

The problem of lack of rigor and allure of the shiny bauble is compounded by a scientist’s innate unconscious bias. We all love our research and our hypothesis like our new babies and therefore, cannot find fault in it. Sometimes, we love it so much that we start believing that we do not need to prove (or disprove) it. One cherry picks results or creates them out of thin air. Maybe even the senior researcher forces the junior researcher unduly to obtain results that fit the narrative. The effect can range from gross negligence to criminal malfeasance. True scientific values and rigor lie discarded along the way.

 

Sometimes, we as a community do not pay so much heed to the malfeasance and negligence, possibly because of the perceived lack of real-life implications of it (the comfortable academic cocoon), irrespective of how snazzy the science sounds. For example, when a doctor makes a mistake, a patient dies, but when a faulty paper is published, nothing much of consequence happens, or that is what we think. However, this is clearly a mistake, as evident by the truly far-reaching impact of much basic research as also the much more near-term effects of many of the applied research. This has been made even clearer in the instance of the extreme near-term use of research (both sound and faulty) during the covid times. To underestimate the seriousness of academic malfeasance due to its primarily academic nature is an egregious fault of the entire scientific ecosystem.

 

Science as I mentioned before, is mostly incremental and painstaking, while science successes that are written about in history are path-breaking, astounding in scope, and exciting to listen to. Nobody questions or highlights the boring procedure, the many failed attempts, and the failed researchers whose incremental work paved the path for that astounding moment of scientific glory. Of course, narcissists that we are, we all want to be at the pinnacle of that scientific glory and not act as the vessel for the incremental invisible work behind it. Therefore, the natural temptation is to see the culmination of one’s work and ideas, which sometimes realistically are not even possible in a lifetime, however great the final idea is. To achieve the big picture in a short time, again it is the rigor that gets discarded.

 

This, of course, is made easier by the interests of pay-to-publish journals and phony conferences and awards. While it is easy to insinuate the pay-to-publish model for the faulty results and their even more faulty interpretations, some of the uber-prestigious “tabloid” journals are also to be blamed. These journals look for the jazzy elements of science and have started disregarding the rigor and reproducibility of data. Of late, there is an increase in data openness, which should be commended and indeed is the right direction to go. However, the inordinate importance that is paid to flashy science is still a big concern.

 

The ones I mentioned are very natural human foibles that get exacerbated by the hyper-competitive, shiny world of sexy science. Just as natural human foibles that are unlawful are treated with the law of the land with appropriate comeuppance, so should the foibles in the scientific arena (which we erroneously believe to be inconsequential due to its apparent lack of real life consequences). But can we do more?

 

The solution to many problems is quite similar – the stick and carrot approach. The stick denotes the consequences of scientific misconduct. There should be a very well defined standard set of dire consequences for different classes of misconduct, which will make its implementation somewhat uniform on people at different rungs of the scientific power structure. It is easy to understand and spell out what needs to be done but difficult to implement. Not the least because scientific misconduct almost always boils down to he said-she said and the share of culpability may not be easy to apportion. The other approach is that of carrot. Here, the entire scientific ecosystem needs an overhaul. The shiny ideas, of course, need funding, but so does “solid” incremental work. In downgrading the importance of these “small” contributions, we are missing out on the real big ones and also, tempting others to forge imaginary big ones. This method of course needs a change in the existing modes of funding, publishing, promotions, and all. Notable small changes have started from some of the EU country science funding agencies which explicitly state that they do not want the referees to judge based on impact factors (which is sometimes synonymous with cool-science factor) but on the individual component of the proposed work. The complete carrot approach is of course a lot larger in scope but may be thought of as a conglomerate of such small but positive steps in the right direction. Baby steps in that direction, could start with something as small as discussion of the problem, giving scientists a space to air out half-baked ideas as opposed to only earth shattering results, a more congenial environment that promotes collaboration as opposed to competition (at this moment collaborations are sometimes frowned upon) and so on. Essentially the solutions are the difficult stick approach and the excruciatingly difficult carrot approach. However, it is imperative that the problems be acknowledged and dealt with at the earliest, lest the problem festers into a more complicated cancer of the entire system and brings it down.

 

Debashree Ghosh is an Associate Professor at Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Kolkata. Views expressed are personal.

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Beautifully expressed! Indeed this is the time we should wake up and do the needful.