Fraud and Misconduct in Research


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(Preface: A topic on this dedicated mostly to "Climategate" is to be found on OL News & Interesting here.)

The most recent high visibility case is that of Diederik Stapel. His cum laude master’s (1991) and cum laude doctorate (1997) from University of Amsterdam led to his becoming University of Tilburg dean of the social and behavioral sciences faculty in 2010. (His bio on Wikipedia here.) Then, it all fell apart. It came out via his doctoral candidate helpers that he had been inventing the data for his research.

"Diederik Stapel gave back his doctorate. Jan Hendrik Schön had his rescinded by the University of Konstanz. For defrauding the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Eric Poehlman was sentenced to a year and a day in prison; but he kept his degrees. While prison is pain and is intended to be so, a year of incarceration is nothing more than a harsh sabbatical. Disgrace is bad enough, but the loss of your degree – having to give it back or having it taken from you – is and should be a sword over your head." (From my own blog entry on this.)

Universitas refers to the legal charters granting these study halls the right to adjudicate their own problems. It comes down to "power versus market" to the warrior/guardian versus the trader/crafter. Hanging, branding, mutilation, incarceration, flogging, stocks and pillories, etc., are all consequences of LEX, law from the top down. Arbitration, negotiation, mediation, remedy and restoration all come from JUS: law from the bottom up.

The deeper truth is that whatever excuses or justifications may exist for other crimes - and about 40 or 50 macro, midrange, and micro theories are offered from anomie and differential association to XYY chromosomes and vitamin deficiencies - this kind of crime iis fully a consequence of rational choice. It is planfully competent. It certainly cannot be blamed on a lack of educational opportunity.

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When I was undergraduate in physics I discovered that everyone except myself among students had a strong distaste for lab work, I found the same was true again in graduate school. There were in fact two undergraduate students whose strong dislike for lab work caused them to either not graduate or delayed their graduation. One went to graduate school without graduating undergraduate because he could not sit still to do lab work - and believed it a waste of his time and talent. There was a third student I had to babysit though labs or she would not have graduated and a fourth who was my friend who I had to help quite a bit but he at least had the right attitude. I mention this because the unwillingness to replicate or do basic experiments because it too much resembles demeaning work and takes a great deal of time likely goes a long ways towards explaining both the rise in scientific fraud and the ever growing tendency in theoretical physics of embracing exotic explanations without physical basis when a little hard work will actually find a real casually based explanation.

Back when I was in school it was assumed that 90% of physicists end up doing applied work and about 10% theoretical - yet 90% seemed to object to doing experimental work. I believe this also goes part of the way towards explaining why so many in physics have left to do financial work or other non-physics work that doesn't get their hands dirty.

Even in secondary school there has been a push to do away with shop classes and fewer and fewer science educators have the requisite degree. There is always money for sports but not so much when it comes to science labs in high school.

In an introductory lecture in graduate school we were told of a student in theoretical chemistry who was by all accounts the perfect student and got his PhD early. Some time later others attempting to replicate his experimental work supporting his theoretical work found the error bars in his experiment allowed any interpretation of his data [it was only noise] but because he was so good in the classroom no one cared to look over the data and he sailed on through.

Classroom work is easy to evaluate - lab work takes time and is more difficult to evaluate so it is lazy professors combined with lazy students - next thing you know you have junk science and the time pressures to manufacture data rather than sit still to actually do the real work.

Dennis May

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For defrauding the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Eric Poehlman was sentenced to a year and a day in prison; but he kept his degrees. While prison is pain and is intended to be so, a year of incarceration is nothing more than a harsh sabbatical.

Isn’t it safe to say that his doctoral degree isn’t worth anything to him now? Do they say why it was not rescinded? At the very least he won't be able to get more research grants.

I’m friendly with an internal auditor for a University. I’ve heard some shocking stories of corruption, mainly theft though, related to research grants. There’s a strong motivation for the University to hush such things up, it taints the whole University and makes it harder for anyone there to get new grants.

The really shocking aspect of the stories I've heard are the brazen attitudes the perpetrators take. They brought this grant money in, and dammit it's theirs to dispose of as they please. One of them switched Universities over it, taking his grants with him.

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For defrauding the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Eric Poehlman was sentenced to a year and a day in prison; but he kept his degrees. While prison is pain and is intended to be so, a year of incarceration is nothing more than a harsh sabbatical.

I’ve heard some shocking stories of corruption, mainly theft though, related to research grants. There’s a strong motivation for the University to hush such things up, it taints the whole University and makes it harder for anyone there to get new grants.

Back about ten years ago or so I came across a paper in "Foundations of Physics" with an obvious mistake it in - funded by DOE grants to the University of California - San Diego. It was work directly related to something I had worked on 10 years ealier while in the Air Force so it took me all of 15 minutes to discover the fatal error. I didn't feel it was worth sending a formal paper to challenge it - but rather I contacted the editor at the time and explained the error - expecting them to retract the article next issue. Instead the editor covered up for them, allowed them to continue defrauding the US government and doubled-down on the project expanding it to a dozen researchers in the physics and computer science departments at UCSD. The work continued for at least two years before the editor finally allowed an obtuse paper with a convoluted explanation of why the work was in errror [many hundreds of thousands of dollars later]. Right after that the same editor allowed in another paper by the same UCSD group with another DOE funded similarly flawed paper again taking 10-15 minutes to discover the error. I gave up at that point. The DOE had someone sending UCSD cash for trash. I guess the gravy finally dried up after the 3rd such paper.

Dennis

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Science has been deeply corrupted by government money. A real scientist, for instance, should be doing real science all his working time, not trolling for government grants. The people who grant the grants aren't qualified to advance science or even understand what that actually would require--their 100% non-participation. Government money also pulls scientists off other projects in other fields which then languish.

--Brant

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Science has been deeply corrupted by government money. A real scientist, for instance, should be doing real science all his working time, not trolling for government grants. The people who grant the grants aren't qualified to advance science or even understand what that actually would require--their 100% non-participation. Government money also pulls scientists off other projects in other fields which then languish.

--Brant

http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2011/12/16/complicit-in-climategate-doe-under-fire/?test=latestnews

An example of the probable involvement of the US government in scientific fraud for political/financial

interests.

Dennis May

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The really shocking aspect of the stories I've heard are the brazen attitudes the perpetrators take. They brought this grant money in, and dammit it's theirs to dispose of as they please. One of them switched Universities over it, taking his grants with him.

The researcher has a point. The university takes about 40% off the top for administrative fees. So, every grant application takes that into account. This inflates the size of the award unnecessarily, of course. But the fact remains that it is the researcher who seeks funding: the university does not deliver the money. Yes, it often comes from the government, but there is private money to be had. In this sense, the source is not important, but, rather, the relationship between the university and the researcher. Also, while it is true that bringing in the big bucks does deliver political favor, that is not always the case. Academic politics is more complicated than that. So, you have some people paying for much else other than their own work, and not being recognized or rewarded. So, they take their money where it is wanted. Seems fair to me.

Science has been deeply corrupted by government money. A real scientist, for instance, should be doing real science all his working time, not trolling for government grants. The people who grant the grants aren't qualified to advance science or even understand what that actually would require--their 100% non-participation. Government money also pulls scientists off other projects in other fields which then languish. --Brant

I find six separate claims in that. Few scientists work independent of universities. (If you know of some, please share the information.) So, who pays for the scientist's working time?

If science were purely entrepreneurial, it would be a different story. You get what you pay for. So, if the federal government offers grants to study climate change or the mating habits of weasels or life on Mars, that's what people apply for. Granted that this is a misallocation of resouces, by definition. "Power versus market" says that political decisions are "less optimal" i.e., worse than economic choices. After the atomic bomb, the product of abstruse physics, Vannevar Bush of MIT (who built the last great analog computer on the threshhold of the digital age) advocated for funding "all" research because there is no way to know what will pay off. Of course, we cannot fund all research. We have limited resources.

We lament the fact that working in the patent office, Einstein wasted his time declining patents to unworkable claims. He could have been wasting his time grading freshman homework. Great composers gave music lessons to the ungrateful children of over-hopeful parents. There may be no way around the need to pay the rent, which abstract physics and new music might not.

The Hayekian response is to eschew central planning. Rather than a tax-supported nexus of RFQs and RFPs, just let spontaneous order evolve. Sounds nice. But at some level, someone has to decide to invest their money (or someone else's) in some idea or other. That takes planning, whether you call it "central" or not.

I think the problem is largely cultural, but deeply so. We never developed a generation of young scientists who, in the tradition of Edison, sought to build research corporations. The computer revolution came close. Objectivist T. J. Rodgers did his master's thesis on the theory of semiconductors and for his doctorate, he built the first MOS-FET transistor. As the president of Cypress Semiconductor, he has been part of the wave most of us see only as "Apple versus Microsoft." I read that the "self-storage" faciltiies that dot the land now were born in the 1970s in Silicon Valley, to rent "garage" space to entrepreneurs. That's all nice, but cancer research does not proceed on that basis. So, there is a deeper cultural problem in that scientists are divorced from entrepreneurship. But they are not alone in that...

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