Tag Archives: integrity of science

WHY IS “GRANTSPERSONSHIP” A FALSE IDOL FOR RESEARCH SCIENTISTS, AND WHY IS IT BAD FOR SCIENCE?

 

Grantsperonship in 2014!  (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Grantspersonship in 2014!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

            With research grants now being so all-important for university science faculty conducting experimental research, skills and good tactics with acquiring these awards have become especially valued.  For getting research grant awards, there can be no question that some doctoral scientists are very much more successful than many others.  The reasons why and how some are more successful are hard to pin down, but it is commonly said that they have more or better understanding about exactly how the research grant system works.  Grantspersonship, formerly referred to as grantsmanship or grantswomanship, is the use of applied psychology, business skills, cleverness, manipulations, sophistry, unconventional approaches, and whatever-it-takes to win a research grant award.  Tactics for acquiring research grant awards are not explicitly taught during the graduate school education of most professional scientists; instead, they are learned and incorporated by the emulation of those having more successful results in dealing with the current research grant system. 

            I have already introduced the hyper-competition by university scientists for research grants (see earlier article in the Scientists category on “Why Would Any Scientist Ever Cheat?”).  In the present condition, grants are everything, everyone is competing with everyone else, and failure to get a new grant or a renewal easily can be the kiss-of-death for university scientists.  Far too many modern faculty scientists have had personal experience with having their research grant applications being turned down or receiving evaluation scores such that they only will receive awards for partial funding.  Many grant-supported university scientists now are trying hard to get a second research grant, in order to (1) obtain additional laboratory space, (2) undertake an additional research project, (3) receive some security in case their first research project does not receive a renewal award, and (4) increase their status and salary.  Of course, these efforts also greatly increase the hyper-competition.  The time and emotional effort needed for this infernal hyper-competition is enormous and detracts from the ability of any scientist to personally conduct research experiments in their lab (see my earlier article in the Scientists category on “What’s the New Main Job of Faculty Scientists Today?”).  Accordingly, very many university faculty scientists indeed would love to obtain more success by increasing their level of grantspersonship. 

            Using grantspersonship to become more successful seems justified to many scientists at modern universities, since obtaining research grant awards is so very important for their career.  Increasing one’s grantspersonship indeed can produce more funding success, but also readily results in several bad effects.  At its worst, some scientists engage in corrupt and unethical practices (see my recent article in the Big Problems category on “Why is it so Very Hard to Eliminate Fraud and Corruption in Scientists?”).  Even if remaining completely honest, researchers using grantspersonship become sidetracked from their aims in being a scientist. 

             Applications for research grants should be judged on the basis of objective evaluations for merit (i.e., having the best approach to answer an important research question and/or more effectively investigate a needed topic), capabilities of the scientist (i.e., adequate background and previous experience, a record of producing important  publications, availability of the necessary facilities and required policies, etc.), compatibility with program objectives of the granting agency, good performance with previous awards, etc.  The use of grantspersonship subverts these traditional criteria, and substitutes inappropriate, irrelevant, and subjective considerations into the evaluation of applications for funding (e.g., association with a given institution, ethnicity, personal friendships, personal interactions with agency officials, professional relationships, professional status, publications in a certain journal, etc.).  All of this subversion of objective evaluations is bad for science. 

 What makes Grantspersonship Wrong?  How does Grantspersonship have Negative Effects on Science? 

            Although grantspersonship appears to be universally accepted today, few have ever examined what are its effects upon scientific research.  The concept of grantspersonship commonly is seen as the application of business skills to science; it deals with obtaining money, and has only an indirect connection to the production of good research.  There is no obvious reason to think that either most very acclaimed great research scientists could simultaneously also be outstandingly adept businesspersons, or, that the presidents of giant multinational corporations could also win a Nobel Prize for their lab research studies.  Business is fundamentally different from scientific research!  The business world previously has given more emphasis than does science to commercialism, contracts, monetary rewards, personal deals, semi-legal actions and outright deception, trading of favors, etc.; these characteristics are not traditionally prominent in the world of science.  Both business and science are useful and needed by society, but they are not the same and they are not interchangeable! 

            Most university scientists see grantspersonship as a means to the end of getting a research grant award.  Anything that will improve the chance for success is viewed as being good and acceptable.  If that really is true, then it logically follows that a new breed of non-scientist grant writers will arise and have many customers; in fact, there already are some of these new commercial offerings already.  Such “editorial grant advisors” officially will be paid to improve or rework any application so as to be more fundable; some also will be able to write an entire research grant application using only minimal input from the scientist submitting the application.  Editorial grant advisors undoubtedly will have a commercial contract with their numerous customers, and might even guarantee at least a certain priority ranking.  Of course, it will be highly unlikely that expert reviewers for the granting agencies can recognize this dual authorship when that is not stated on the application form; some applicants will maintain that they alone are the true author since they must supervise and approve of anything composed by the advisors.  Many scientists, including myself, will consider such dual authorship to be unethical; on the other hand, the concept of grantspersonship will fully accept this subterfuge. 

            What makes grantspersonship wrong?  Grantspersonship is wrong because it has bad effects on science, and on the objective evaluation of research grant applications.  In particular, the concept of grantspersonship: (1) implies that research capabilities mainly relate to construction of a grant application; (2) means that good business skills are somehow equivalent to scientific expertise, even though there is no obvious evidence for that view; this falsity is evidenced by the fact that some pre-eminent Nobel Laureate scientists have had enormous difficulties with business aspects in the modern research grant system (see my earlier article in the Scientists category on “What’s the New Main Job of Faculty Scientists Today?”); (3) confuses and subverts the objective evaluation of grant applications, because it is unknown what comes from the applicant and what comes from some extraneous co-author;  (4) sidetracks the essential goal of science (i.e., to find or critically study the truth) and substitutes that with the target of getting research grant funds; in other words, the real goal becomes to get the money, rather than to uncover new knowledge; and, (5) counters integrity of scientific research by making the goal be obtaining a grant award, rather than discovering important new knowledge through experimental investigations. 

Concluding Remarks

            From all the foregoing, I conclude that grantspersonship is a false idol for modern scientists doing research, andhas bad effects upon science.  The true aim of scientific research is not the acquisition of money! 

            The only way I can see to remove this anti-science mess is (1) to get the granting agencies to adopt much more rigorous standards for objectivity in reviewing research grant applications, and (2) to get the universities to either stop or greatly diminish the hyper-competition for research grant awards, since that underlies the current flourishing of grantspersonship.  Regretfully, both of these needed changes seem very unlikely to be instituted. 

            Whenever I get depressed at realizing that there now is an overwhelming desire for more grantspersonship amongst university scientists, I always begin laughing because I start wondering which will be the very first university to hire some modern Jesse James (i.e., an outlaw and notorious USA bank robber from the second half of the 1800’s) as the newest member of their science faculty, since he would bring much more money into the university than any grant-supported scientist could do!

 

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INTRODUCTION TO CHEATING AND CORRUPTION IN SCIENCE

 

Dishonesty in Science (http://dr-monsrs)
Dishonesty and Corruption in Science (http://dr-monsrs)

  

             How much cheating and corruption is there in science?  The best answer is that nobody knows!  Even today in 2014, there continue to be much-publicized instances where some professional research scientist is revealed to have published research results in peer-reviewed journal articles where the reported experimental data were either fabricated (faked) or were grossly changed (i.e., to construct a surprising pseudo-result) [e.g., 1,2].  While money is almost always involved in some way, for corruption in science money only rarely goes directly into the pocket of the dishonest scientists, unlike the usual situation for widespread corruption within politics and the business world.  Instead, it often goes into their professional purse and is used for such personally rewarding expenses as the purchase of additional research equipment not paid for by their grants, salaries for additional research coworkers, extra business travel, a new computer with special software, etc.). 

 

  Dishonesty in science includes several different types of unethical activity.  At a simple level, this corruption can involve such disgraceful events as (1) adding some imagined numbers to a chart of experimental results, so as to get better statistics, (2) changing or removing some numbers in a chart of collected results, so as to shift the conclusions being supported by these data, (3) misrepresenting the design of experiments, so as to support certain conclusions or deny others, or (4) not giving appropriate credit to internal or external collaborators and coauthors.  Thus, these simpler types of dishonesty involve research fraud by data fabrication and manipulation, drawing false conclusions, theft of intellectual property, etc.  At a more complex level, dishonesty in science can involve such activities as (1) stealing experimental research data from other labs, (2) stealing ideas or even research projects from other scientists, (3) fabrication of entire experimental datasets, or (4) constructing an application for a research grant using imaginary results or falsified statements.  These larger types of dishonesty thus involve theft of data, lying about the experimental results gathered, stealing of ideas, misrepresentation with the intent to deceive, etc.  Some or even many readers will wonder how in the world could any of these examples actually happen?  I assure them that I have heard rumors, seen and listened to stories, and, read reports about all of these!  Moreover, I have conversed with two separate doctoral workers who unsuccessfully pursued lawsuits for their claims of data theft.

   

  I personally believe that almost all faculty scientists are completely honest.  Any unethical behavior by professional scientists betrays the enormous trust given to them by the general public [3], and the necessary trust given by their fellow researchers.  Any dishonesty thus destroys both the integrity of science and the practical ability of other researchers to proceed forward from what they believe is the truth when designing new research experiments.  When dishonesty occurs in successfully acquiring a research grant, that event directly decreases the chance that some other scientist who is totally honest is able to acquire funding for their worthy project; this type of robbery is not often recognized as being a very important part of modern corruption in science.  A shocking and disgraceful example of successful cheating in order to get a large research grant award was uncovered very recently [1]. 

 

In addition to outright dishonesty and deception by scientists, where research integrity is discarded, there also is a gray area where some very limited portion of collected data (e.g., a very few outliers in a data plot) is eliminated from the total pool of experimental results displayed.  The opposite condition for this same kind of situation also occurs, where one or two pieces of individual data that are much better, clearer, or prettier than the average case, are selected to be shown in publications and in oral presentations.  These practices are not at all unusual and are known generically as “fudging the data”; both can simply serve to make the quality of the collected data look better and be seen more easily.  They commonly are not considered to be dishonest. 

 

 What happens when outright dishonesty by a faculty scientist is either proven or admitted?  In many cases, there has been almost no penalty given beyond having a published article withdrawn or being discharged from a laboratory group.  Part of this apparent lack of serious concern is due to the fact that in cases where some very celebrated scientist has been accused of being involved in corruption, long battles and countercharges in the courts have ensued [e.g., 4,5].  If famous research leaders are directing some very large laboratory in which the cheating allegedly occured, it usually is totally difficult to prove either that they were involved in the dishonest act(s) carried out by some individual lab worker, or that the leader even knew about the wrongful event(s) [4,5]; separation of the supervisor from actual technical workers is very widespread within giant laboratory groups (research factories), where the chief scientist really is only an administrative manager and does not even know the names of all the people who work there. 

 

Most corruption in science almost certainly remains undetected.  Unless there is some witness who is upset enough and courageous enough to report the dishonesty, and unless hard and fast documentation can be acquired, the loss of research integrity will never become known or proven. A good example of this is given by the very recent case cited earlier [1], where the dishonesty was discovered only when some other research laboratories found that they could not duplicate some of the experimental results published by the unethical scientist.  Despite new rules intended to protect whistleblowers and the recently increasing appointment of officials in charge of research integrity at academic institutions, it continues to remain very difficult to investigate and prosecute alleged dishonesty in science.  There is a natural reluctance for anyone working in academia, whether faculty or students or lab technicians, to make accusations that necessarily will involve official investigations, prolonged legal activities, and possible retribution.   

                      

Clearly, the present measures being taken to prevent, detect, and punish dishonesty in scientific research are inadequate.  There is too much lip service in dealing with cheating and corruption in science, and it seems likely that this problem will increase.  I suspect that the amount of dishonesty in applications for research grants particularly is increasing now, and soon will become the most frequent form of corruption in science.  The chief driver for my prediction is that it is very, very hard to detect, and nearly impossible to prove, any dishonesty in grant applications; moreover, there presently is only scanty attention and little concern being given to this problem by the different granting agencies.

           

Although all academic sicentists are quite aware of the problem of dishonesty and corruption in science, there generally are few casual or formal discussions about this issue.  Exactly why do some few scientists become dishonest?  What motivates cheating and dishonesty in science?  How can dishonesty and corruption in scientific research be decreased and eliminated?  What new penalties should be instituted for cheating in research?  Can an unethical researcher be made honest by some curative process?  I will discuss these complex questions and related issues within future postings. 

 

[1]  Mail Online, 2014.  Rogue scientist faked AIDS research funded with $19M in taxpayer funded money by spiking rabbit blood.  Daily Mail (U.K.), 26 December 2013.  Available online at:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2529541/Rogue-scientist-FAKED-federally-funded-AIDS-research-spiking-rabbit-blood.html

[2]  Callaway, E., 2011.  Report finds massive fraud at Dutch universities.  Nature, 479:15.  Also available on the internet at::  http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111101/full/479015a.html .

[3]  Pew Research, 2009.  Public praises science; Scientists fault public, media; Scientific achievements less prominent than a decade ago.  Available online at:                                       http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/public-praises-science-scientists-fault-public-media/ .

[4]  Wright, P., 2003.  Robert Alan Good.  The Lancet362:1161.  Also available on the internet at:                                                                                                          http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2803%2914489-3/fulltext .

[5]  Bombardieri, M., & Cook, G., 2005.  More doubts raised on fired MIT professor.  In: The Boston Globe, October 29, 2005.  Available online at:  https://secure.pqarchiver.com/boston/doc/404985132.html?FMT=ABS&FMTS=ABS:FT&type=current&date=Oct+29%2C+2005&author=Marcella+Bombardieri+and+Gareth+Cook%2C+Globe+Staff&pub=Boston+Globe&edition=&startpage=&desc=MORE+DOUBTS+RAISED+ON+FIRED+MIT+PROFESSOR .

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