Crooks in Science

June 06, 1994|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington.--Crooked science is the topic as several hundred researchers and lawyers gather in Washington today and tomorrow for another go at developing methods for coping with scientific misconduct.

Good luck. But the awesome problem that never gets the required recognition is that the science establishment is half-hearted about cracking down on fraud and other corruptions in research.

Meeting at the National Academy of Sciences, the assemblage on Scientific Conduct coincides with the investigation of one of the messiest and most disturbing scandals in government-supported research: fraud and mismanagement in breast-cancer studies. After identifying the culprit, a Montreal physician who admitted faking patient records, the U.S. government guardian of scientific ethics responded by barring him from applying for any further federal grants for eight years.

Queried by incredulous congressmen, the director of the Office of Research Integrity explained that the customary banishment from grant- land is usually three years. The managers of the National Institutes of Health, which financed the flawed research, were tongue-tied on the is sue of why the faked reports were still being published long after the agency knew they were faulty.

When asked in formal surveys about their personal observations of misdeeds in research, scientists and graduate students report that it's no rarity. In one survey, nearly 20 percent claimed direct knowledge of the commission of scientific sins.

Nonetheless, the science establishment comforts itself with a lullaby of purity. Daniel E. Koshland Jr., the editor of Science, America's leading research journal, declared in 1987 that ''99.9999 percent of [scientific] reports are accurate and truthful.'' Two years later, he opined, ''We can have zero fraud -- but only if we have zero science.''

The director of the National Institutes of Health, Harold Varmus, takes a somewhat different approach, arguing that the problem in policing science is to separate the ''jerks from the crooks.'' The implication, again, is a soothing one, suggesting that ineptitude or stupidity, rather than larceny, underlies some significant proportion of seamy episodes in the practice of science.

Unfortunately, the misconduct cases that have spilled into public view point toward institutional problems, rather than mere bumbling in the lab. For example, in recent years investigations have shown that several youthful fabricators of scientific data were cheered on by their elders, who were pleased to share the glory of publication as co-authors, though they contributed nothing but their professional stature to the presumed research project.

When the fakeries were revealed, the senior profs scurried away, insisting they knew nothing about the unspeakable departures from established scientific procedures. This happened at Harvard, the University of California at San Diego and other prestigious institutions. The junior culprits got the boot, while their mentors emerged unscathed.

The meeting at the National Academy of Sciences may represent a step in the direction of reality -- or it may provide just another chorus for the traditional lullaby. The academy is the leading honorary edifice of American science, a self-electing body of 1,700 who are considered the elite of the profession, based on their contributions to scientific knowledge. It can be influential, if it chooses to be. The meeting was called, an academy announcement stated, because there have been many reports about coping with scientific misconduct but ''the scientific community has not paid sufficient regard to these matters.''

Looking on from across the Atlantic, a veteran observer of the American scientific scene, John Maddox, editor of the international journal Nature, wished success for the conference, warning that the ''steady stream of misconduct cases in the past 15 years has corroded the civility of the U.S. scientific enterprise and undermined its public reputation.''

Underlining the need for a better response to scientific misconduct, he noted that ''outsiders can be forgiven for believing that science is not the honorable profession it pretends to be, but a mafia in which rival gangs scheme to win the credit for intellectual innovation.''

And that's from a staunch friend of science.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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