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My lab:
The plural of anecdote is not data. Yet, anecdotes of scientific misconduct are accumulating. Everyone knows the most high-profile cases like those of Jan Hendrik Schön or Hwang Woo-Suk. In a recent survey, over 70% of scientists self-reported some kind of major or minor misconduct. Can scientists be trusted? Why should we trust scientists, you might ask, when we have the data?

How fragile public trust in scientists really is was revealed when two or three stolen private emails from climatologists were taken out of context and published. Objectively, given the overwhelming consensus of several tens of thousands of climatologists discussing and collecting data for at least the last 60 years, this should have been laughed off. However, the public sometimes is neither objective nor rational: the public is starting to show signs of doubt. Given that only a negible percentage of the general population are climatologists, or even interested, educated lay persons, or, for that matter, know what the scientific process is about, let alone have first hand access to the data, what is the public to do, other than deciding who to believe in a he-said, she-said game of politics? Clearly, public trust in any authority is fickle, rightfully so and we've just been shown that scientists are no exception.

Of course, one can blame the media. Of course, one can blame the education system for scientific illiteracy. Of course, one can blame special interest groups and big corporations. Some of that blame probably wouldn't be all that misguided, but I'd like to have a look what we, the scientists are doing about our own credibility. Well, for one thing, we are asking that politicians and bureaucrats simply entrust us with taxpayer money and reduce any regulations tied with the funds. Hmmm...
Let's see what universities and other research institutions are doing. They decrease the number of tenured positions while, at least in the US, the number of students "earning PhDs in science and technical fields has risen by 18 percent since 1985" (Scientific American). Not only in the US. At our institution, for instance, around 1980 there were about 40 tenured professors in the biology department. Today, there are 15. According to my own experience, a typical tenure-track or tenured position on any side of the Atlantic will receive anything between 60 and 300 applicants. So, what is happening is "casualization". Secure, tenured jobs are cut in favor of short-term, cheap labor. A graduate student with, at least in Europe, a Master's degree will net about 12,000€ for a 60-80h job. That's a net income of ~4,00€/hour after taxes. Which you can live on, since you don't have any time left to spend the money anyway. In the current system, a given professor will have somewhat around 40-60 graduate students in the course of his/her career. If the number of positions remained constant, one of them would eventually get a tenured professorship, on average. A postdoc makes about twice that, so ~8€/h, after texes.

In which other profession do you make 8€/h after taxes with a Master's and a doctorate for about 10 years on 2-3 year contracts until you're around 40, only to then have a 1 in 60 chance of getting a contract without an end date?

And what if you're not the one in 60? You've been in a lab for your whole life, usually working on a topic so specialized that even working on a different molecule in the same cell would make you feel like a novice. You've never even seen a company from the inside and are expected to compete with recent graduates when you're 42? Basically, for many, the prospects are flipping burgers or tenured professor. Is it a surprise that even honest people start to to give in to the temptation? Shouldn't we rather be surprised that it took so long for someone to snap? Shouldn't we instead be surprised that it doesn't happen more frequently?

As I see it, we have to ways forward: either we keep going with the current system and install a science police to catch the fraudsters and psychologically labile scientists whose numbers will increase if we keep incentivizing fraud and frustrate the hell out of the majority of the work force. This would of course also mean that scientists can't be trusted until they've been cleared by the science police. If the stakes are so high, nobody should be trusted and peer-review will be the least of our problems. On the other hand, we could lower the stakes and provide constructive incentives, for instance by providing reasonable career prospects for professional scientists. This can be done either by lowering the number of trainees or by increasing the number of tenured faculty, whichever your budget allows. With less incentives for fraud and misconduct, the numbers will stay low. But you can't have your cake and eat it too: placing the carrot so high that hardly anybody can reach it and then acting all surprised that people are actually scrambling for the ladder. You get what you pay for, also in science.
Posted on Tuesday 02 March 2010 - 11:21:05 comment: 0

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