BOSTON — It can be dangerous to be a university scientist these days. False accusations of research fraud can stick like tar even when disproved. Research sponsors may try to control when, where, or how scientists publish their results. Sponsors may even bully a scientist to suppress or change findings that displease them. And woe may befall any researcher who blows the whistle on a colleague's or an institution's malfeasance.
This is the flip side of progress in the long-playing effort to "do something" about scientific fraud.
In the United States, research universities and federal funding agencies now have procedures for dealing with research misconduct. Nobody is satisfied with them. They are awkward to use and lack uniform standards, especially in defining what constitutes misconduct. They often do not adequately protect the accused. Nevertheless, they have resolved some high-profile cases.
The trouble is that vested interests and unscrupulous individuals can misuse these procedures to harass and intimidate scientists who displease them.
Gilbert Omenn, executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, notes that "the level of proof" needed to file a research complaint "is far less than professional journals require before publishing a scientist's paper." It is even easier to get disparaging remarks about a scientist's work and professional standing echoed by news media. Also, while universities generally have policies against signing contracts that restrict researchers' right to publish freely, restrictive language sometimes does creep in.
This decade has seen scientists harassed for legitimate whistle-blowing, for producing results that sponsors think detrimental to their commercial interests, and even for uncovering public dangers that embarrass vested interests.
Drummond Rennie, health-policy professor at the University of California at San Francisco, recounted a case where a university researcher inadvertently let a clause restricting publication slip into a contract with a drug company.
The study compared the efficacy of one of the company's proprietary drugs with lower-cost competitors. When the study found little difference between the drugs, the company tried to suppress the findings, Professor Rennie said. He explained it took a seven-year struggle to get the results published. During that time, the researchers felt harassed, especially when other scientists with ties to the company tried to discredit the research. The harassment included baseless charges of research misconduct, according to Rennie.
Botanist JoAnn Burkholder at North Carolina State University at Raleigh has received wide publicity for uncovering a previously unknown form of toxic algae responsible for massive fish kills in Chesapeake Bay and other regional waters. They also send toxins into the air that have poisoned local people. What may not be so well know outside of her area is how vested interests in the tourist business, including public officials, and chicken farmers have harassed her. In outlining this, Dr. Burkholder explained that the farmers' interests are involved because pollution from their farms appears to encourage growth of the algae. She further explained how efforts to discredit her work and her scientific reputation went beyond normal scientific debate.
More than individual scientists are at risk. Disgruntled special interests sometimes attack public agencies funding unpopular research, Dr. Omenn says. Even scientific journals may be threatened by withdrawal of advertising if an advertiser doesn't like a research paper that journal editors plan to publish. Omenn adds that the entire scientific community needs to come to the aid of funding agencies and journals in these cases.
Misuse of procedures designed to curb research fraud plus other kinds of harassment are, themselves, a form of scientific misconduct.