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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 to animals.

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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