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How science changed — IV. Cutthroat competition and outright fraud

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/04/15

The discovery of the structure of DNA was a metaphorical “canary in the coal mine”, warning of the intensely competitive environment that was coming to scientific activity. The episode illustrates in microcosm the seismic shift in the circumstances of scientific activity that started around the middle of the 20th century [1], the replacement of one set of unwritten rules by another set [2].
The structure itself was discovered by Watson and Crick around 1950, but it was only in 1968, with the publication of Watson’s personal recollections, that attention was focused on how Watson’s approach and behavior marked a break from the traditional unwritten rules of scientific activity.
It took even longer for science writers and journalists to realize just how cutthroat the competition had become in scientific and medical research. Starting around 1980 there appeared a spate of books describing fierce fights for priority on a variety of specific topics:
Ø    The role of the brain in the release of hormones; Guillemin vs. Schally — Nicholas Wade, The Nobel Duel: Two Scientists’ 21-year Race to Win the World’s Most Coveted Research Prize, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1981.
Ø    The nature and significance of a peculiar star-like object — David H. Clark, The Quest for SS433, Viking, 1985.
Ø    “‘Mentor chains’, characterized by camaraderie and envy, for example in neuroscience and neuropharmacology” — Robert Kanigel, Apprentice to Genius: The Making of a Scientific Dynasty, Macmillan, 1986.
Ø    High-energy particle physics, atom-smashers — Gary Taubes, Nobel Dreams: Power, Deceit, and the Ultimate Experiment, Random House, 1986.
Ø    “Soul-searching, petty rivalries, ridiculous mistakes, false results as rivals compete to understand oncogenes” — Natalie Angier, Natural Obsessions: The Search for the Oncogene, Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Ø    “The brutal intellectual darwinism that dominates the high-stakes world of molecular genetics research” — Stephen S. Hall, Invisible Frontiers: The Race to Synthesize a Human Gene, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.
Ø    “How the biases and preconceptions of paleoanthropologists shaped their work” — Roger Lewin, Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins, Simon & Schuster, 1987.
Ø    “The quirks of . . . brilliant . . . geniuses working at the extremes of thought” — Ed Regis, Who Got Einstein’s Office: Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study, Addison-Wesley, 1987.
Ø    High-energy particle physics — Sheldon Glashow with Ben Bova, Interactions: A Journey Through the Mind of a Particle Physicist and the Matter of the World, Warner, 1988.
Ø    Discovery of endorphins — Jeff Goldberg, Anatomy of a Scientific Discovery, Bantam, 1988.
Ø    “Intense competition . . . to discover superconductors that work at practical temperatures “ — Robert M. Hazen, The Breakthrough: The Race for the Superconductor, Summit, 1988.
Ø    Science is done by human beings — David L. Hull, Science as a Process, University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Ø    Competition to get there first — Charles E. Levinthal, Messengers of Paradise: Opiates and the Brain, Anchor/Doubleday 1988.
Ø    “Political machinations, grantsmanship, competitiveness” — Solomon H. Snyder, Brainstorming: The Science and Politics of Opiate Research, Harvard University Press, 1989.
Ø    Commercial ambitions in biotechnology — Robert Teitelman, Gene Dreams: Wall Street, Academia, and the Rise of Biotechnology, Basic Books, 1989.
Ø    Superconductivity, intense competition — Bruce Schechter, The Path of No Resistance: The Story of the Revolution in Superconductivity, Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), 1990.
Ø    Sociological drivers behind scientific progress, and a failed hypothesis — David M. Raup, The Nemesis Affair: A Story of the Death of Dinosaurs and the Ways of Science, Norton 1999.

These titles illustrate that observers were able to find intense competitiveness wherever they looked in science; though mostly in medical or biological science, with physics including astronomy the next most frequently mentioned field of research.
Watson’s memoir had not only featured competition most prominently, it had also revealed that older notions of ethical behavior no longer applied: Watson was determined to get access to competitors’ results even if those competitors were not yet anxious to reveal all to him [3]. It was not only competitiveness that increased steadily over the years; so too did the willingness to engage in behavior that not so long before had been regarded as improper.
Amid the spate of books about how competitive research had become, there also was published. Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science by science journalists William Broad and Nicholas Wade (Simon & Schuster, 1982). This book argued that dishonesty has always been present in science, citing in an appendix 33 “known or suspected” cases of scientific fraud from 1981 back to the 2nd century BC. These actual data could not support the book’s sweeping generalizations [4], but Broad and Wade had been very early to draw attention to the fact that dishonesty in science was a significant problem. What they failed to appreciate was why: not that there had always been a notable frequency of fraud in science but that scientific activity was changing in ways that were in process of making it a different kind of thing than in the halcyon few centuries of modern science from the 17th century to the middle of the 20th century.
Research misconduct had featured in Congressional Hearings as early as 1981. Soon the Department of Health and Human Services established an Office of Scientific Integrity, now the Office of Research Integrity. Its mission is to instruct research institutions about preventing fraud and dealing with allegations of it. Scientific periodicals began to ask authors to disclose conflicts of interest, and co-authors to state specifically what portions of the work were their individual responsibility.
Academe has proliferated Centers for Research and Medical Ethics [5], and there are now periodicals entirely devoted to such matters [6]. Courses in research ethics have become increasingly common; it is even required that such courses be available at institutions that receive research funds from federal agencies.
In 1989, the Committee on the Conduct of Science of the National Academy of Sciences issued the booklet On Being a Scientist, which describes proper behavior; that booklet’s 3rd edition, titled A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research, makes even clearer that the problem of scientific misconduct is now widely seen as serious.
Another indication that dishonesty has increased is the quite frequent retraction of published research reports: Retraction Watch estimates that 500-600 published articles are retracted annually. John Ioannidis has made a specialty of reviewing literature for consistency, and reported: “Why most published research findings are false” [7]. Nature has an archive devoted to this phenomenon [8].

Researchers half a century ago would have been aghast and disbelieving at all this, that science could have become so untrustworthy. It has happened because science changed from an amateur avocation to a career that can bring fame and wealth [9]; and scientific activity changed from a cottage industry to a highly bureaucratic corporate industry, with pervasive institutional as well as individual conflicts of interest; and researchers’ demands for support have far exceeded the available supply.

And as science changed, it drew academe along with it. More about that later.


[1]    How science changed — III. DNA: disinterest loses, competition wins
[2]    How science has changed— II. Standards of Truth and of Behavior
[3]    The individuals Watson mentioned as getting him access corrected his recollections: they shared with him nothing that was confidential. The significant point remains that Watson had no such scruples.
[4]    See my review, “Betrayers of the truth: a fraudulent and deceitful title from the journalists of science”, 4S Review, 1 (#3, Fall) 17–23.
[5]   There is an Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science. Physical Centers have been established at: University of California, San Diego (Center for Ethics in Science and Technology); University of Delaware (Center for Science, Ethics and Public Policy); Michigan State University (Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences); University of Notre Dame (John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values).
[6]    Accountability in Research (founded 1989); Science and Engineering Ethics (1997); Ethics and Information Technology (1999); BMC Medical Ethics (2000); Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics (2001).
[7]    John P. A. Ioannidis, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”, PLoS Medicine, 2 (2005): e124. 
[8]    “Challenges in irreproducible research”
[9]    How science has changed: Who are the scientists?


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