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[SANET-MG] faces of science fraud
Three faces of science fraud
By Prof David Schubert
The San Diego Union Tribune, February 16, 2006
There has recently been a great deal of media attention directed toward
Woo Suk Hwang, the Korean scientist who fabricated results concerning a
technical advance in the field of stem cell research. While this sort of
behavior is indefensible, it is perhaps the least harmful among the
different types of scientific fraud that are currently taking place.
The reason for this is that in the world of academic science to which
Hwang belongs, incorrect new claims are rapidly discovered and discarded
because other laboratories cannot reproduce them. However, if fraud is
defined as the creation or manipulation of data to achieve a specific
end, then the type of scientific misconduct perpetrated by some
industries and the Bush administration is much more serious and has led
to extensive human suffering.
The goal of academic science is both to develop a rational understanding
of the world and to create ideas and technologies for human benefit. The
product of this work is usually data published as manuscripts in
scientific journals. Scientists send a manuscript describing their work
to a journal, the editors then forward it to two or three expert
reviewers, and a judgement is made as to whether the conclusions from
the data are correct and of sufficient interest to publish.
In reality, publication is more complicated because of the goals of the
scientists and the perceived eminence of the journals. Although the
major interest of most scientists is the creation of knowledge, for
others it is primarily self-promotion. The latter group, which I assume
includes Dr. Hwang, puts more pressure on the high-profile journals to
publish their work because these journals receive more media attention
and are seen by science administrators as being more prestigious,
leading to better jobs and more research support for the scientist.
However, irrespective of the scientist's goal, if the work is important,
it is going to be repeated by other laboratories. In the case of Hwang,
the techniques that have led to his notoriety could not be substantiated
and the fraud was rapidly detected.
In contrast, the type of scientific fraud that is carried out by some
industries and biotech companies, whose only goal is to sell a product,
is often not rapidly self-correcting. The government regulates
commercial entities that have the potential to make harmful products,
but there is continual pressure on politicians and regulatory agencies
to reduce regulatory requirements. The well-orchestrated procedures to
use fraudulent science to sell a product were first developed by the
tobacco companies, and the success rate using this technique has greatly
accelerated with our current administration in Washington.
If there is opposition to the introduction of a product from a consensus
of scientists, usually in the form of proposals for increased government
oversight, then companies will employ their own scientists to publish
manuscripts in an attempt to discredit the consensus. These manuscripts
frequently contain experiments that only have an illusionary relevance
to the problem, but are used in PR campaigns to create scientific
uncertainty about the science in order to block the regulation.
There are several recent examples of the success of this approach. The
chemical industry used it to persuade the Environmental Protection
Agency to roll back regulations that require companies to notify
neighborhoods that are being exposed to toxic waste that most scientists
say is dangerous. The plant biotech industry has repeatedly made false
claims about the safety of their genetically engineered, or GE, food
crops and has tried to discredit scientists who publish manuscripts
showing that they are harmful. For example, several years ago Dr. Arpad
Pusztai showed that GE potatoes cause serious health problems in rats,
resulting in the harassment by the plant biotech industry and ultimately
in his dismissal from his academic position. Since then, several other
scientists have shown that different GE food crops cause similar
problems, and it was discovered that one of the companies that tried to
discredit Pusztai withheld their own data showing that GE corn is toxic
As a result of this disingenuous behavior of the chemical and plant
biotech industries, there is a moratorium in many European countries on
the cultivation of GE food crops and a requirement that all new
chemicals that are consumed or reach the environment be extensively
tested for safety.
An even greater impact of fraudulent science on human health arises from
the control that the White House is now exerting over regulatory
agencies such as the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration. In the
past, these agencies have operated as independent entities, and their
decisions were based upon the best science available. Recently, however,
these agencies have been forced to bend the facts of science to fit the
political agenda of the Bush administration. Examples of this behavior
abound, from the rewrite of an EPA study on global warming to the recent
report that Jay Slack, a senior member of the Department of Interior's
Fish and Wildlife Service, deliberately faked environmental impact data
that allowed the development of a housing development in the Everglades.
For this well-documented political manipulation of science, he was
promoted within the department. Finally, fraudulent statements have
appeared on government Web sites claiming that some birth control
medications and devices are either carcinogenic or ineffective. The
global extension of these positions will be disastrous for the Earth and
have already increased death and suffering due to AIDS and
overpopulation in African countries, where U.S. policy has reduced
access to contraception.
The examples outlined above demonstrate that scientific fraud carried
out by both industry and government is not uncommon in the United
States. Similar behavior in the academic community may also be growing
in proportion to the increase in the number of scientists and the
competition for limited funding and job opportunities. However, the
consequences of industrial and government fraud are far worse than
academic misconduct, for the former are often neither self correcting
nor reversible until a great deal of damage is done.
Schubert is a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
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