View From The Trenches

William Tivol tivol at
Fri Jun 23 10:30:44 EST 1995

U27111 at wrote:

: Here's the latest e-mail exchange between the PhD and myself:
: ********************************

Dear Kathy,

[much stuff deleted from various places]
: PhD: WOW!
: PhD:        I had no idea of the depth of your anguish and disgust.
: PhD: I'm truly sorry for the way science "in general" has sucked
: PhD: the spirit from you totally and so completely.

: Thanks... because it truly has.

	My experience has been completely different from yours, either because
1) I was lucky, 2) my field is less corrupt than yours or 3) my work has not
been as closely linked to personal tragedies.  Like PhD, I am truly sorry both
for your excruciating losses and for the work environment which made them all
the more poignient.  It is one thing if a loved one dies and there is nothing
to be done, and quite another if you experience a lab which might have made
a discovery which could have helped, but didn't because everyone was too busy
masaging data and going fishing.

: The truth of the matter is....

: I spent nearly 5 years in cancer research only to 'somewhat'
: watch my uncle die of lung cancer.  (I wasn't personally there for
: him in the end.)

: I then went on to work for 7 more months, again in cancer research,
: in a lab that prior to my uncle's death - I would have  probably
: been ok to just chug along in - like the rest of us usually do...
: but instead, I couldn't take it anymore.  I couldn't take the
: incompetence, stupidity and the 're-arranging' data in the
: computer... re-arranging the data NOT because they were trying to
: beef it up for a grant proposal or a paper... but because the
: people were too damn lazy to do the work properly the first time
: and didn't care to take the time to re-do it - so they just made it
: into what they wanted it to be (or what they 'thought' it should
: be).

	My experiences were about finding out what the data said.  The data
were the truth--i.e. what was done gave such-and-such results--and either they
proved a hypothesis (or not) or there were flaws in what was done which needed
to be corrected.  The most satisfying example from my graduate school career
was the time when the group was measuring a cross-section which would distin-
guish between two models.  All the data were consistant except at one point.
When we saw this, we went back to the notebooks and found a notation that the
pressure or temperature of the target was off (I don't remember the exact
flaw).  We then knew we had a consistant, reproducible set of results, and a
good explanation for the one inconsistancy.  I have used this example in my
teaching ever since.  The ways in which this lab experience differs from yours
are many and profound.

: All they cared about was working as little as possible (ave. of 6
: working hours per day); and taking home a pay check (for full time
: work).

	Unconcionable.  I have known a few such people, but they were in the
extreme minority, and they didn't get very far.  There should be accountability
for this kind of thing--especially in a government lab.  The state of New York
takes this seriously enough that it is one of the few ways to get fired.

: So I made a big stink (job suicide) and left in the end.

	Yes, a big stink is almost always job suicide.  That's why the field
needs leaders to marshal opinion in support of whistle-blowers.  I'm appalled
at the treatment of some of the whistle-blowers who were shown to be completely
right and who went carefully through the existing processes only to be discoun-
ted (Margret O'Toole comes easily to mind).

:  And do
: you want to know what I was told?

:      "All significant discoveries in science have been by
:      accident.  Thus you can consider it a random event.  And
:      a low caliber lab has just as much chance of having that
:      random event happen to them as a high caliber lab.  Thus
:      it doesn't matter if we were a low or high caliber lab."

	Purest bullshit.  Sorry if the group doesn't like the word, but nothing
else expreses my feelings about the content of the quote.  Sure, there are ac-
cidents in science, but only the observant scientist who does not try to mas-
sage them away will ever make any significant discoveries from them.  Whoever
told you that quote has no concept of science whatsoever.

: Anyway, a few months after leaving that job... my mother became
: ill.

	Adding injury to insult; ouch.

: This is the type of cell culture work they do...

[examples of *really* sloppy & unsafe procedures]

	It is too easy to say "Run, do not walk, away from this lab as fast as
you can."  Clearly, anything you did there would be unappreciated, and associa-
tion with that kind of sloppiness could damage your credibility.  There is the
small matter of paying the rent and buying food, and the matter of letting such
"work" continue.  On the latter point, however, you most certainly do not have
the power to shut down that lab.  The granting agencies either do not see the
sloppiness, or they are completely corrupt.  What is needed is to assemble the
support of the honest researchers (I hope they are a substantial majority, and,
if not, that they can convince enough dishonest ones to support them.).

: By the end of the week it was mutually decided that my personality
: did not fit into their lab.

	A great compliment.

: And if this doesn't show you how badly this field needs to become
: standardized and certified (with certified techs and accredited
: labs)...  I just don't know what else will?

	If only that were the answer.  If a governor gave a scientist a multi-
million dollar lab; do you think he would not give him certification.

: It's just not enough to sit by and watch others abuse and misuse
: the scientific process all the while making sure what *you* do is
: correct and valid... 

	Sometimes all you can do is make sure what you do is correct (scienti-
fically and ethically) and impart those values to the next generation.  This
is not very satisfying, perhaps, but there are not easy solutions to the prob-
lems of entrenched corruption (just ask the citizens of many of the world's

: PhD:        I do not sit around in my ivory tower and dream of
: PhD: better days... I write and try to educate Congress concerning
: PhD: my views on the state of science and the crisis that is upon
: PhD: us.  I view cases such as Gallo, Baltimore, Stanford
: PhD: University (all Universities are just as guilty, they just got
: PhD: caught...which seems to be the defining definition of science
: PhD: and society in general today) with your same disgust and
: PhD: anguish.

	I have to put in a plug for my undergrad school here.  Not only did
they examine their overhead practices scrupulously before the Stanford inci-
dent, they have been more than conscientious in preventing perceived misuse of
funds.  They have passed all inquiries with flying colors and continue to be
vigilent--not just because they might get caught, but because it is the right
thing to do.  I am proud to be associated with this school, and their conduct
makes it easy for me to be an alumni fundraiser for them.  Furthermore, when
an example of sloppy science was discovered by a "head honcho" big lab chief,
he immediately and publicly retracted the paper.  There was no attempt to evade
responsibility or cover up the problem.

: Why do we allow this to continue?

	Why do we (you and me, personally) allow the war in Bosnia to continue?
We have no power to change it.  That doesn't mean that we cannot take every op-
portunity to use the little influence we have.  If I can see an opportunity to
affect the course of the field as a whole, I'll take it.  So far, the only
thing I can see to do is to influence the field locally and try to support
those who are trying to make things better on a larger scale.

: PhD: I don't want a *GOOD* job just to
: PhD: passify my "ego" or make me wealthy and powerful, I would like
: PhD: to simply be able to take care of my wife and family and
: PhD: maintain some sense of happiness.  I hope you are able to find
: PhD: some form of happiness in the future (if there is one?!?)

	I would also hope that a *GOOD* job would give one the opportunity to
make significant discoveries by doing real science and being observant.  I can
say from personal experience that having such a *GOOD* job is the most rewar-
ding part of my life.
				Bill Tivol

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