Friday, January 19, 2007

Editorial seeking intellectual honesty in science

Richard Gallagher's editorial in the Jan. 07 issue of The Scientist entitled How About Some Intellectual Honesty? includes the sentence: Even with the most promising of start-ups, there's an aspect of selling the dream that researchers are naturally uncomfortable with. The mention of the word "dream" is uncomfortably close to the "fairy tale" discussion that appeared in selling embryonic stem cell research.

If you've forgotten, Maureen Condic wrote: In June 2004, Ron McKay at the National Institutes of Health acknowledged in a Washington Post interview that scientists have not been quick to correct exaggerated claims of the medical potential of embryonic stem cells, yet McKay justified this dishonesty by stating: “To start with, people need a fairy tale. Maybe that’s unfair, but they need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.”

Gallagher keys in on Allerca (of the $4,000 hypoallergenic cat) but never mentions embryonic stem cells, SCNT, or Hwang Woo-Suk. He notes of the failure to criticize seemingly bad work: In the case of Allerca, perhaps scientists are afraid the companies they start won't stand up to scrutiny either.

Gallagher is for telling it like it is:

But it could be that other researchers don't value this kind of difficult truth-telling enough. We all just want to get along - don't rock the boat, please. After all, we'll give aid and comfort to the enemy - usually seen as meddling government agencies and social conservatives who would bring down evolution - if we don't close ranks. Look what's happened in the climate change debate, many argue: If you give political critics a wedge, they'll drive it far enough to stifle progress.
Sorry, that doesn't work. In the short term, dissent and open debate may seem to be counterproductive. But in the longer term, honesty and an airing of all views is the best policy.

Gallagher concludes:

The silence on companies such as Allerca, followed by nods and "I knew its" after frauds have been uncovered, will only give critics of science more ammunition. It is in fact time to commit to our cause - in 2007 let's challenge one another to be universally open and forthright.

IPBiz notes that the willingness of journals to promote open discussion needs to be enhanced. Long before the Beasley Committee was formed, many scientists believed the work of Jan-Hendrik Schon was wrong and attempted, unsuccessfully, to publish their concerns in journals (for example, the attempt of Solomon to publish in Nature). Investigation was begun only after the most flagrant evidence (the exposure of graph copying by Schon) appeared. Similarly, the initial response of Science in December 2005 concerning Hwang was one of denial, not of scrutiny. The Koreans acted quickly to reveal the fraud, and Science followed their lead. Now, it appears that the Korean worker who went from Hwang's lab to Schatten's lab was doing the same photographic manipulation in America.

The Brauman report on the Hwang fraud is a good first step. But identifying the contributions of each author isn't enough. Each author needs to sign off on the paper, with the acknowledgements kept by the journals. Each author needs to reveal any financial interests in the content of the paper, and any possible conflicts. And the journal needs to act on disclosed conflicts.

The Jan. 07 issue also discusses a number of complaints about technology transfer offices from academics.

The following was sent to The Scientist:

Of the text --The correspondence sections of journals are alive and well--, I would say "alive" yes, but not well.

Years ago, I published an article in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS). About four years later, someone else published on the same topic in JACS, referencing my paper for something that I never said. I wrote the editor to set the record straight. I was told JACS had a policy against publishing third party comments. Years later, I served on the Ethics Task Force of the American Chemical Society and tried to change the policy. Not a chance. The only "improvement" was that third parties could submit comments on an internet board. No "correspondence section" here.

The journal Nature does allow third party comments. I looked into the rules Nature has for third party comments. Although I didn't submit a comment after reading the draconian rules, I did publish an article on Nature's rules themselves. Also, Solomon of IBM tried to publish a comment in Nature on some of Schon's work, but was rebuffed, even though in hindsight Solomon was right and Nature/Schon were wrong.

The journal Science had some misleading, if not totally false, statements about continuation applications in July 2006. I submitted a letter, but was told that Science stood by its story. I did publish my views in JPTOS (88 JPTOS 743), a journal read by experts in patent law. To date, nobody has said I was wrong.

Lawrence B. Ebert
January 19, 2007

Of the problem of scientists or of journals being stakeholders in the positions they advance, the following showed up in a discussion of the controversy over "weathermen decertification" brewing in January 2007:

James Spann, who has been in the tv weather business since 1978 stated "I do not know of a single TV meteorologist who buys into the man-made global warming hype" and he says that climate alarmism is driven by huge research grants that become "the motivation for a scientific conclusion."

Look also here.
Without reaching the merits of global warming, one can see the possible significance of Spann's point as to stakeholder interests. If one gets money for researching if X is an important factor, one will likely get more money by continuing to say X is a factor. On a related point, note that the journal Science has been advancing an agenda about the adverse impact of patents on basic research, but itself overreached by making false statements about continuation applications, to further advance that particular position. [see 88 JPTOS 743].


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