Are scientists losing moral authority?

13 10 2010

Unlike lawyers and politicians, scientists tend to enjoy a bit of moral authority and credibility in the public eye. People assume that scientists work for facts-findings that are repeatably found, ruthlessly scrutinized and interpreted, and only then published with the highest of ethical standards. And naturally, all the while being driven only by their love of truth and advancing knowledge about the world we live in-a greater good type of thing.

This is why Climategate hit a particularly vulnerable public off-guard, “Whaaa?  I expect this from a slippery politician, but scientists talking about eliminating the competition!”  When I first heard about Climategate, I was actually a bit annoyed at the uproar.  I thought this is a bunch of people overreacting.  Sources of global warming are real, just look around you-if you can see through the smog.  I live in Atlanta, AKA “Car City.” My downstairs neighbors, a couple, own 4 cars and rent the condo beneath me.  They always have the TV blaring.  I also live next to a huge park with a big biking/running trail.  My previous neighbor owned a treadmill.

The public doesn’t understand how science works, I thought. And they probably still don’t understand that the issue isn’t whether global warming happens or not, it’s whether we the people caused it.  But I’ve become less sensitive to how science and personalities within science “work” (see previous post). Scientists are people too with all the same insecurities, poorly executed ideas, and dastardly plans for their competition. Now this doesn’t account for all of us.  I know many people who are interested in the truth, collaboration, real clinical outcomes, and overall reduction of suffering.  I do wonder sometimes if the mechanisms of being a scientist have created a bit of an obstacle course on the way to those goals. But on the other hand, I often wonder how our funding mechanisms may have created a culture where we actually succeed-not via toxic competition necessarily, but via healthy appropriation of funds to truly innovative science.  I’d like to share some of the challenges of being a scientist to non-scientists so you won’t be so caught off guard next time.

1. New graduate students and frustrated postdocs like to say that the big egos are a problem, but really everyone is big-time afraid.  Really afraid–of not being smart enough, not coming up with ideas fast enough, not getting funding for next year, not keeping up with the most recent findings and technologies, not publishing in time, and getting too old to keep up with all these fears. This pretty much never goes away. Most of these fears are taught in graduate school and then they typically stay with you throughout your career (if you plan on climbing to the top to having your own lab-which you’re also more than encouraged to do). Also, choosing a career outside of academia is gaining more acceptance, but is generally frowned upon by older mentors and even young aspiring scientists.

2. Graduate students and postdocs are the work horses of the university.  Science graduate students generally have their tuition waved and salaries covered by grants mostly from the government (National Institutes of Health).  Your U.S. tax dollars pay for us. Postdocs are *supposed* to spend  a relatively shorter time at the university. Although the “permanent postdoc” position is becoming more and more common. These grants all work upon strict timelines, generally between 1-5 years.  For example, once you’ve been a postdoc for 5 years (in the U.S.), you’re no longer eligible for independent funding (although things may change in the future).  This means your goose is cooked.  The idea being, if you didn’t make it by now, you’re probably not going to make it later.  This sentiment is pushed onto students, postdocs, and faculty throughout their academic careers.  Publishing high profile data helps you to keep getting that funding and people get desperate for these publications.  Without the funding you’re dead in the water. Graduate students feel a similar pressure.  While many are guaranteed funding from the university even if your adviser loses his/her grant, others don’t. In addition, many graduate students in larger prestigious schools (especially in the U.S.) are expected to have a couple of good publications by the time of graduation.  My advisor said one per year.  If your project isn’t working, you continue getting paid your little stipend, but you watch all your friends graduate as you enter your 7th year as a graduate student. Not to mention how underrepresented women are the longer you stay in the academic arena.

But maybe the more important question is *should* scientists have had moral authority to begin with? Let’s explore common perceptions of scientists

1. “Scientists know the “facts”. We should accept and memorize these facts.” Scientific inquiry may involve utilizing a set of given facts.  However, the process of scientific inquiry involves looking for a conceptual framework that can be used to explore the world and to draw connections about the world. They don’t really find “new” things about the world, they just discover new ways of conceptualizing the world. Moreover, scientists do not really have answers.  They generate more questions.  A good scientist’s career is more than finding a fixed endpoint answer, but actually discovering what they don’t know and how our current view of the world is incomplete. Being a scientist is very humbling in this way.  I never trust a scientist who always has all the “answers” nor one who is uncomfortable with saying, “I don’t know.”

2. “Scientists produce findings that can be repeated by everyone (at least all other scientists).”–See Case Study no. 1: Generally, each lab has criteria for repeatability within their lab.  When publishing data all methods are expected to be described in painstaking detail. Before most articles are published, they go through a review process by peers who maintain their anonymity.  When scientists submitt papers to academic journals, they can request a set of reviewers (ones that may look favorably upon his/her work) and even ones to exclude (people who authors know may be competitors-see Case Study no. 4).  The editors of the journal can choose to respect your requests or choose additional reviewers that you didn’t mention. If you’re famous, people tend to scrutinize your methods less. They assume that you know what you’re doing.  Also, if your “friend” reviews your paper, maybe they “trust” you and your methods.  This can be bad. What people often forget is that busy mentors usually are not directly monitoring the new graduate student or postdoc who is learning how to do the lab’s established technique on his/her own.  In addition, common lab methodologies even within the same lab can change/evolve over time, often for the better, without the lab head realizing this. Buy maybe worst of all, is that often people don’t take their peer reviewing obligations seriously. This is a free activity that one does dutifully out of an ethical obligation to the scientific community. Often it’s even considered an honor. While the lab heads are busy making sure grants are coming in and publications are going out, some of these things fall to the wayside. And then you have this erroneous data published out there for posterity.

3. “The priority of scientists is to advance knowledge.” Well, it may have started that way when the scientist was a bright new shiny graduate student.  But over time, publication pressures become the main topic of conversation.  How will be publish this? These data won’t get published in a very good journal.  The concern becomes less about creating a legacy of good scientists, but a legacy of good publications and survival. As most scientists know, 99% of the experiments performed don’t work or have inconclusive data.  And even with that 1% of success a very small proportion of those finding will become a readily translatable finding to public health or public concerns in the scientist’s lifetime if at all.   Scientists often believe in what they do, but they become distracted from the bigger picture.

Again, many scientists stay true to the moral authority society gives them, but these are the problems they face in the scientific community.  Scientific advances genuinely have and will continue to have benefits for public health and to advance knowledge, but the public needs to be more critical in their analysis of the deluge of scientific information hitting them from every possible media.  A good start is getting a little inside view of the actual “scientific process” and what scientists realistically can humanly do. Also, it will be important for scientists to have regular “morality-checks” and reminders.  This could include regular required ethics courses not only for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, but also for new and old faculty.




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