Getting at the corrosion of conscience in the lab

The Association of American Universities (AAU) is right. Plagiarism, fraud, and a working climate that emphasizes success rather than honesty ''strike at the heart of the scientific enterprise.''

Yet despite rising concern over the past decade about this threat, the rot continues to eat away at the foundation of scientific research. Thus the report of the AAU's Committee on the Integrity of Research stresses a need for laboratory directors to take personal responsibility for the honesty of research in their institutions.

It is a sad comment on the state of research ethics that laboratory leaders have so fallen down on this responsibility that it has to be delineated as a ''new'' professional standard.

The association represents 50 public and private research universities in the United States, plus two in Canada. Its report comes less than a year after the Association of American Medical Colleges issued a comparable policy statement. It, too, warned of the corrosive effect of fraud. It, too, chided research supervisors for neglecting their ethical duties.

Both reports recommend formal procedures for dealing with fraud when it is alleged or detected. Some universities, such as Yale and Stanford, have already established such due-process mechanisms. What really gets to the core of the problem, however, is the insistence on personal responsibility of supervisors to set standards of integrity and to maintain an ethically healthy working environment.

The AAU explains that ''since it is difficult if not impossible to detect in advance those most susceptible (to cheating), major attention should be directed toward establishing the best environment.'' It adds: ''Nothing can substitute for a persuasive attitude of intellectual honesty in the laboratory environment.''

The AAU report notes the pressure-cooker atmosphere, especially in medical laboratories, in which researchers are pressed to publish as many papers as they can. This has been involved in many cases of lab cheating. The AAU ''strongly recommends'' an ''emphasis on quality rather than quantity in research.''

Senior scientists, the report adds, need to set the example. It warns that ''. . . pressure for more publications may not be explicit, but hidden pressures . . . will prevail if responsible individuals are mute on the subject. An active and frequently expressed attitude stressing quality rather than quantity is necessary.''

Referring to laboratory chiefs, the report says that ''the director of a laboratory who is mentor or supervisor of research must assume special responsibilities.'' It adds: ''Routine audit and review of all primary data by the laboratory director is strongly recommended. It is inadvisable for the director to delegate these important functions.''

As obvious as such responsibility would seem to be, it has been neglected in many laboratories. Such neglect is a common theme in lab fraud, along with the success-at-any-price syndrome.

So far, at least, cases of known, overt fraud have been rare. But the neglect of ethical standards by institutions and research officials has been widespread. Thus the bottom line of the AAU report, as association president Robert M. Rosenzweig has said, is that ''it places the responsibility . . . where it belongs, namely, with individual scientists, with the scientific professions, and with the institutions in which science takes place.'' New age for Indian carvings

Petroglyphs carved by ancient Indians on rocks in the North American Great Western Basin may be thousands of years older than experts have believed.

Ronald L. Dorn and David S. Whitley of the University of California at Los Angeles report in Nature that they have used a new chemical technique to date the carvings. The rocks are covered by a gloss called desert varnish, which is caused by natural weathering. Indian artists pecked through this coating. New varnish then formed on the freshly exposed rock surface.

To date the carvings, Dorn and Whitley used the fact that certain chemical elements leach from the newly forming varnish at differing rates. The abundance ratio of one of the more mobile of these elements, such as sodium or calcium, to a less mobile element, such as titanium, decreases with time. Hence it acts as a clock.

The scientists say that their studies provisionally suggest ''that rock art production within the Great Basin is almost twice as old as (the 3,000 to 4,000 years) previously hypothesized.'' For running, size helps

When it comes to running, it helps to be big - up to a point.

After studying running speeds for 107 diverse land mammals, Theodore Garland of the University of California reports in the Journal of Zoology that an optimum weight is about 260 pounds. More massive animals, such as elephants, tend to be relatively slow. But below the optimum, size helps.

Mice can hit 8 miles an hour. Top speed increases somewhat beyond that as body size increases. But the best speed for sustained running - a speed at which an animal doesn't run out of oxygen - is about half the top speed. That's still plenty fast for a cheetah - the fastest land animal - whose top speed is around 69 m.p.h.

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