View From The Trenches

U58563 at U58563 at
Fri Jul 14 23:57:17 EST 1995

   Please!  You have some valid complaints, but when you suggest regulation as
the cure-all for everything you are playing with fire.
   The increase in misconduct in science has nothing to do with regulation.
Whatever "good old days" you might want to return to (and actually, the
researchers of the past were not uniformly honest either), they are not the
result of having stormtroopers marching up and down the hallways.  They might
better be credited to a scholastic system that is very cunningly designed to
remove the temptations for misconduct, yet encourage innovative thinking.
Specifically, if you recall, the THEORY of getting grants is that after going
through a wringer of educational steps to prove your prowess, you finally
acquire a tenured position with which you have complete security --- THEN, you
propose a good idea, and get money based on what is written in the grant (which
actually represents a body of work in and of itself, but not work that can be
falsified).  NEVER does it come to an interaction where a person receives money
because they obtained a particular result --- because it is impossible to
prevent cheating with certainty when the cheater knows what he is doing better
than anyone else in the world!!!
   Unfortunately, various attempts to transfer business ethics (which work just
great for getting holes dug, since you can't lie about whether you dug a hole)
to science have subverted this system.  The need to get "preliminary data" for
a grant application, before a deadline!, is a recipe for disaster.  Is it fraud
if you don't run a gel twice because you don't have time, and get money based
on a first result that might be unrepeatable?  Is it fraud if you don't run a
gel twice because you're AFRAID the second result might not agree with the
first?  Is it fraud if you run a gel twice, get two different answers, and come
up with some half-bogus explanation for the second, then discard it and not
mention it in the grant?  Is it fraud to run the gel under conditions that you
know might lead to a misleading result, and not to mention the way in which the
result might be misleading?  Once you tie money to data obtained, you have a
slippery slope greased all the way to Hell.
   A similar set of arguments can be made concerning patents.  But they are the
least of the reasons why a patent system is a poor replacement for basic
   Had the scholastic system been maintained intact, then the only incentive
left for fraud would be to gain fame.  But since fraud WILL inevitably be
detected (unless it happens to be right --- not a sure bet!) the person who
desires fame will stay honest.
   As it is, however, we see cases described every month in The Scientist and
so forth describing the reputation that is truly devastating to one's research
--- not to be dishonest, but to be a whistleblower!  Because the dishonest
scientist now brings money to his institution, and is a valuable asset, while
the whistleblower is a dangerous liability who, _due to regulation_, represents
the potential loss of a great deal of money!  And there is the sad state of
affairs which you lament.

   Your Stupid Lab Tricks are immensely entertaining, but prove nothing.  It is
logically inevitable that the very worst screw ups that you see in several
years in science will seem incredibly STUPID to most people.  After all, if
people in general were smarter, you would have a different list of stupidities,
which would be less offensive to us but equally offensive to the smarter

   As to the FDA:  I cannot believe that you do not see the advantage to having
a drug available for some people to try a few years earlier than it would be
now.  The disadvantage is to the few who suffer adverse reactions, who would
have taken the risk voluntarily rather than face certain death.  The advantage
is to all the rest of us, who would benefit if we fought the diseases that
attack us as if it were a war, in which casualties were unfortunate but
inevitable, rather than prohibiting acts of bravery as our first priority.

   As to regulation of radioactivity:  I have seen news reports of a case in
which a major university was forced to spend $150,000 recovering a package of
P-32 from a landfill.  This is evidence of how perhaps well-meaning regulation
leads to absurdity --- because such a quantity of P-32 is barely a danger at
all, is well-contained in its shipping container, and WILL degrade within a
year, which is more than you can say of anything else put into a landfill!
Rules are no substitute for common sense.

More information about the Bioforum mailing list