The thing that nobody talks about

When Scientists Sin: Scientific American

When you talk to scientists about science, especially if you are not yourself a science professional, the one thing you typically hear very little about is politics.  We are supposed to be above all that; scientists are collectively supposed to be supreme arbiters of fact untainted by the mundane foibles of human nature.

This is, of course, something of a sham.

Just like anybody else, we work at companies or universities of varying sizes, and just like the rest of the world, we have to meet performance expectations, metrics, deal with office politics, and the like.  Credit, though, to the scientific community for knowing all of this.  Every scientist I have met resists corporate red tape tenaciously – we know that forcing metrics on us is going to force us to preserve our own hides in addition to preserving our research.  That self-preservation has the potential to taint our work.  We know this, and we resist this sort of tampering not because we’re lazy and want to slack off without oversight, but because research, itself, is a capricious mistress – corporate politicking only makes it worse.

It’s easy to tell, for example, a marketing professional that he must complete one major marketing campaign, maintain two existing campaigns, and design two new campaigns per quarter (or whatever a normal workload is for a marketing professional).  The only things he must depend on in order to complete his objectives are his own ability to do the work, and possibly the ability of a few outside resources (graphic design, printing, whatever) to assist him in whatever he’s not equipped to do himself.  Telling a chemist that he’s got to make with one revolutionary new drug per quarter (for example) is an entirely different animal.  He might attempt to make several bioactive compounds, but there’s no going forward if the chemistry doesn’t work.  Or maybe the chemistry works fine, but the resulting compound is found to be inactive in vivo, or maybe too toxic to use.  The chemist isn’t reliant on only himself and a few support services to meet his objectives; he’s also subject to the laws of physics in ways that non-technical professionals simply don’t have to deal with.  All of a sudden, it’s not about does the chemistry work, or is the compound active in a meaningful way, but rather can I spin these results such that they will satisfy my corporate benchmark.

My view of scientific fraud is unequivocally negative, but that’s colored with the knowledge that sometimes keeping one’s job becomes more important than doing one’s job.  Whether that’s ethical or not, it is reality.  So even though I might roundly condemn people who perpetrate fraud, particularly if they do so in an attempt to gain notoriety, there’s a small part of me that understands why some people get led down that garden path.  They have reputations to maintain and families to feed, and sometimes the research just does not cooperate.

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