Science: Fudging Data for Fun and Profit

  • Share
  • Read Later

The latest research scandal raises some ugly questions

Fellow researchers were awed by young Mark Spector's golden touch in the lab: he could often complete in a matter of days complex experiments that took others weeks and even months to do. Shortly after he entered Cornell University in 1980 as a graduate student in biochemistry, Spector was working with some of the most eminent men in his field. Most remarkable of all, at age 24, Spector seemed on the verge of proving a bold new theory explaining how tumor-causing viruses could turn a cell cancerous. He looked like a good bet for a Nobel Prize some day.

Eighteen months later, his brilliant career was in ruins. Findings that were touted only last summer as a fundamental breakthrough in the understanding of carcinogenesis have been branded fraudulent. Colleagues discovered that his results included protein gels—isolated bits of cellular matter—that were cunningly doctored to look like something they were not. While Spector denied any wrongdoing, he was expelled from the Cornell lab, withdrew his Ph.D. thesis, even though it had already been approved, and quit the university. Important aspects of his work may yet turn out to be true, but few believe he will ever be able to return to scientific research.

Cheating, of course, is common to many professions these days, even in past bastions of integrity like science, which has traditionally placed the search for truth above all other goals. But the Spector scandal has shaken this edifice in special ways. Besides wrecking the career of a gifted young researcher, it severely damaged a major man of science, Specter's sponsor, Cornell Biochemist Efraim Racker, who was ultimately responsible for supervising the results. More important, beyond whatever personal trauma may be involved, the case has put the entire research community on trial in the public mind. Once again there are questions about how much cheating goes on in the lab and whether scientists are in fact doing enough to keep their house in order.

Last year the world of science was jolted by the public airing of four major cheating scandals, involving such prestigious institutions as Yale School of Medicine; Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard; and the Boston University Medical Center, where a threeyear, $1 million cancer-research project was tainted by falsified data. This year two University of California scientists have been reprimanded for a different ethical breach: violating federal guidelines governing genetic engineering. Some newspapers have begun talking about a scientific "crime wave," and though the term does not really apply, Congress took notice by holding hearings on fraud in bio-medical research. One response: the National Institutes of Health, which doles out $2 billion a year for research, has threatened to cut off any institution that fails to act as a watchdog on its workers.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2