Tag Archives: science and society

IT’S NOT SO EASY TO CONDUCT SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AMIDST NATIONAL TURMOIL! 

 

International awareness of Venezuela in 2017 is needed! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
International awareness of Venezuela in 2017 is needed!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Everyone knows that science and research now are active in almost every country all over the world.  Many graduate students in science, and very many doctoral scientists employed to conduct research here, were born in foreign countries; thus, science and research in the U.S. have a distinctively global character.  These facts commonly lead to a false assumption that scientific research is proceeding and progressing nicely everywhere.  Actually, history shows different examples where events completely outside science can disrupt the practice and progress of research!

This dispatch considers the present situation for professional scientists and science students in Venezuela.  I bring this up because many academic scientists in  the U.S. and other Western countries complain loudly about the recurring shortage of money for support of their research, but fail to see that faculty scientists at certain foreign universities now must struggle just to get enough food to eat; that situation completely overwhelms all the many ‘normal problems’ in today’s academic research!

Brief background about Venezuela! 

Venezuela is an independent constitutional republic of some 31 million people located on the Northern edge of the South American continent.  It is nominally a rich country due to its very large deposits of oil and other natural resources; despite the recent political conflicts, some gasoline produced from Venezuelan oil is widely sold here in the U.S.  Venezuela has several universities and big hospitals in its largest city, Caracas.  Its current national leader, Nicholás Maduro, is a socialist who has responded to increasing economic difficulties (hyperinflation) and popular disapproval of current government policies by imposing dictatorial rule, capital controls, and political repression.

A university scientist describes how the current turmoil in Venezuela affects  research and teaching in its universities! 

Faculty scientists in the U.S. often remain blissfully unaware that their own career misgivings are minuscule compared to scientists in certain other countries that are seized with such a great turmoil that daily life descends into a struggle only to eat and survive.  Venezuela now is the prime example of such an unfortunate situation.

Prof. Benjamin Scharifker courageously has just authored a dramatic description of current university science in Venezuela, “Science struggles on in my ravaged country”, published within the May 11, 2017, issue of Nature (volume 545, page 135).  He is an Emeritus Professor continuing to conduct research at the Simón Bolívar University, and also serving as a Rector at the private Metropolitan University; both institutions are located in Caracas.

He describes the present difficult situation in graphic detail and with heartfelt anguish.  A sampling of quotations from his published report includes: “concomitant shortages of food and medicine”, “annual inflation rate in excess of 500%”, “A full professor makes much less than US$100 a month”, “we did not have running water in the laboratory”,  “the brain drain in Venezuela is staggering”, and, “How do we cope?  We don’t; we just try to survive.”  Most reading his story have never personally encountered the extreme situation described by Dr. Scharifker, and probably cannot readily believe or even imagine that any faculty scientists and science students could be facing this in 2017!

The large crisis in Venezuela soon probably will advance to cause the shutdown of universities and all their activities for teaching, scientific research, and other scholarly pursuits, despite the determination of students and faculty to carry on no matter what happens.  Nevertheless, a large number of university faculty and graduate students already have left Venezuela in order to be able to continue conducting their research and education; this brain drain is very sad, since I know that Venezuela previously has produced some renowned research scientists!  Prof. Scharifker comments that he hopes there will not be further bloodshed of university students in their public demonstrations and protests!

What are the main messages for scientists in the West? 

This situation in Venezuela is gory!  Let us hope that it does not spread to any other countries!  Many of us who sincerely complain about the decayed and degenerated current condition of scientific research at our universities, must recognize that our own troubled situation is drastically better than what our fellow scientists and students in Venezuela must face every day!

Science never exists in a vacuum, but always takes place within some social and political context.  Scientific research can be corrupted either internally (e.g., by scientists and science companies with dishonesty or greed) or externally (e.g., by economics, politics, or society).  Scientists everywhere should simultaneously be citizens, and so must take part in national and local disputes, governmental issues, and politics; just because we are always busy with researching and teaching is no reason to avoid participating personally in these areas.

In turn, science and research interact with the external milieu to produce some changes that help everyone (e.g., advanced technology, better education, improved public health and safety, innovative new concepts, new medical and dental therapies, the internet, etc.).  Thus, science and society usefully interact with each other!

Concluding discussion! 

From my viewpoint, I believe the following conclusions are warranted.  (1) Scientists are privileged people who should actively accept their simultaneous role as citizens in their country!  (2) Complainers about not enough money for research, or counterproductive policies in modern academia, must recognize that everything could get very much worse!  (3) Let us give our fellow faculty scientists and science students in Venezuela our hopes for their better future!

 

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WHY IS IT SO VERY HARD TO ELIMINATE FRAUD AND CORRUPTION IN SCIENTISTS?

 

Ordinary Career Goals Easily Have Room for Cheating!   (dr-monsrs.net)
Ordinary Science Faculty Goals Easily Can Encourage Corruption!                               (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

             Today in 2014, nobody knows exactly how much dishonesty is occurring in science (see my recent post on “Introduction to Cheating and Corruption in Science” in the Basic Introductions category).  Clear examples of cheating by research scientists continue to be discovered every year [e.g., 1,2].  This ethical problem always is potentially present, can be very destructive, and has several known causes (see my recent post of “Why Would Any Scientist Ever Cheat?” in the Big Problems category).  The problem of cheating and corruption in science is particularly hard to solve because the great majority of lapses in professional ethics remain unrecognizable and undetected. 

 

            Unethical behavior in modern scientific research at universities is encouraged by 4 changes from previous conditions that impact all faculty scientists. 

                        1.  Within universities, science has changed its goals from the discovery of new and true knowledge into the acquisition of commercial developments, obtaining more and more external research grant money, and achieving as many published research reports as possible.  In such an atmosphere, cheating and deceit are simply the result of the large pressures generated by these new goals (see my posts on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research” in the Basic Introductions category, and “Why Would Any Scientist Ever Cheat?” in the Big Problems category). 

                        2.  Today’s doctoral researcher employed in academia is so overwhelmed by the numerous demands for their time and effort that it is natural to search for easy ways to save precious time and speed up research progress (see my recent post on “Why is the Daily Life of Modern University Scientists so Very Hectic?” in the Scientists category). 

                        3.  Science and research always function immersed within the surrounding environment.  In the modern USA, research scientists are working today within a society where deception, fraud, insincerity, and even outright lying are too often considered useful and clever in advertising, all levels of education, business and commerce, court and legal activities, entertainment, federal and state governments, law enforcement, manufacturing, and, sports.  Thus, it would be nothing short of a miracle if some few scientists do not also follow these widespread unethical practices. 

                        4.  Money now is over-emphasized in scientific research (see my earlier post on “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?” in the Big Problems category).  The hyper-competition for research grants pervades all aspects of being a busy faculty scientist  (see my recent posts on “Money Now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities” in the Essays category, and “Why Would Any Scientist Ever Cheat?” in the Scientists category).  The large pressures created by this condition easily can overwhelm any superficial adherence to honesty by some faculty researchers who are not sufficiently tied to the need of science professionals for total integrity. 

 

            Why is dishonesty so very bad for science that it must be eliminated?  Corruption in science breaks down trust by the public, by fellow researchers and other scholars, and by commercial interests.  Any breakdown of trust can be very destructive and usually spreads.  The whole enterprise of experimental science is based upon the trust that research results published by scientists are real, and that reported experiments will work as described when they later are repeated by other investigators.  Any falsification of research data and conclusions in journals or books can have devastating later consequences (e.g., doctoral research scientists working at some large pharmaceutical firm do not object when they recognize that their results with testing of a new drug have been manipulated by company executive administrators to remove the experimental evidence for some side effects).  Scientific and legal controversies originating or supported by fraudulent results and biased conclusions not only are a huge waste of time, but also waste large amounts of money. 

           

            Why can’t some “minor dishonesty” in research be tolerated?  This would have unfortunate practical consequences.  For all future research work, the “slightly dishonest researcher” must be expected to be willing to cheat again; this expectation follows from basic human nature.  Any and all research results from that person cannot ever again be taken at face value, but have to be independently verified by further experiments and tests.  Once trust by fellow research scientists is broken, it cannot be readily reassembled, barring development of some effective efforts with rehabilitation (see my recent post on “Important Article by Daniel Cressey in 2013 Nature” in the Big Problems category). 

           

            Are current efforts to try to control dishonesty in scientific research having good effects?  The penalties for dishonesty in research and the resultant breakdown in trust usually are not very severe.  In the past, most instances with detection of cheating and dishonesty have not produced very strong effects upon the perpetrator.  The recent federal laws designed to protect whistleblowers from retribution are well-intentioned, but do not attain their supposed aims.  Continuing to ignore this problem certainly will not make it go away.  History already proves that wishful thinking will not change the ongoing presence of corruption in science.  Although all research scientists will profess to have very strong standards of honesty, most will not ever take action if some corruption is observed or alleged.  The appointment of officials in charge of research integrity in universities is increasing and might help improve this problem in the future, but without strengthening all the other measures needed, this is likely to have only a nominal effect. Thus, I must conclude that current efforts to deal with dishonesty in science are not effective!

 

            Fraud and corruption in scientific research are especially hard to eliminate because: (1) their ultimate basis is normal human nature (i.e., working to increase fame and fortune), (2) they often are extremely hard to detect and very difficult to prove (i.e., allegations of dishonesty are meaningless without explicit authenticated documentation), (3) they are strongly stimulated by the enormous job pressures coming from granting agencies and universities (i.e., the time problem, and the money problem), and, (4) the penalties for being caught at corruption in science presently are too limited and not harsh enough.  Clearly, one cannot change the first condition (human nature), but the other 3 conditions can and must be changed in order to achieve much more extensive progress in dealing with this difficult ongoing problem.  Although it previously has been very difficult to eliminate dishonesty in science, I believe that this major problem for modern scientific research can be greatly improved by addressing these 3 areas.

 

            If cheating and fraud in science are so very hard to detect and prove, what can de done to stop dishonesty and corruption by scientists from becoming more frequent?  The biggest chance for success in eliminating the issue of dishonesty for modern science is to institute 3 large changes: (1) much more intense education about the need for research scientists to always be 100% honest, (2) much more effective and vigorous efforts to detect dishonesty in scientific research, and (3) much harsher penalties must be handed out for admitted or proven  unethical behavior by research scientists.  Making these 3 changes will help tip the balance when some weaker individual scientists are faced with any temptation to take the easy way out rather than maintain their professional integrity.  

 

          [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://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 .

 

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