Science: Fudging Data for Fun and Profit

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Many scientists are unwilling to concede any significant increase in cheating. After all, the ancient astronomer Ptolemy may have occasionally faked observations to fit his model of the universe. Isaac Newton, the father of classical physics, and the saintly monk Gregor Mendel, who founded genetics, were apparently not above fudging some of their specific data to fit a generally true theory. Defenders of present scientific procedures say the only change has been psychological: what Dr. William Raub, NIH's associate director for grants and contracts, dismisses as "a heightened consciousness and a willingness to talk" about cheating. Other observers sharply disagree. Says University of Chicago Philosopher Stephen Toulmin: "You can't change something into a highly paid, highly competitive, highly structured activity without creating occasions for people to do things they never would do in the earlier, amateur stage."

There is no doubt about the increase in pressure on researchers to produce spectacular results, especially at a time when there is a squeeze on funds for research. As Raub notes, today only 30% of the applicants for NIH grants get them, compared with up to 70% in the 1950s. Senior scientists are often so busy scram bling for funds to keep their large labs running that they rarely have the time to look as closely at what their young whizzes are doing as they would like. What was once a sportsmanlike rivalry between researchers has become cutthroat competition. By publishing a paper first, even if some of the data are not quite accurate, a young scientist may beat out a rival for any number of prizes: a tenured post or promotion, a big grant from the Government, an offer from industry (especially if the researcher is working in the hot area of gene splicing) and ultimately perhaps the trip to Stockholm.

In a time of such intense competition, a researcher who happens to suspect chicanery by a rival may be only too willing to blow the whistle. Scientists also like to point out that science was long protected from fraud by a built-in safety mechanism: to be generally accepted, experiments must be repeatable by others. Indeed it was just such a failure that led to Spector's downfall. But in contemporary practice, the safeguard often does not work. So much is being done in every field that unless an experiment is really important, years may pass before anyone tries to repeat it. Especially at a time when new ideas are at a premium, there is not much profit in doing over someone else's work. Furthermore, repetition is sometimes all but impossible, as in the case of health studies involving thousands of patients.

Some scientists believe that the current flurry of cheating cases is nothing more than what they call an anomaly, a random quirk in the regular flow of events. But as canny researchers have long known, anomalies are often the first clue to some deeper discovery. For that reason alone, it may well be in the scientific community's interests to look more closely at the recent examples of ethical lapses.

—By Frederic Golden

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