Shake off `weird science'

MISCONDUCT in scientific research is as old as science itself. But the visibility and influence of science have grown, as has its appetite for public funds. Concern about sloppy research, faked results, plagiarism, and outright scientific fraud is no longer the sole province of scientists; they are public issues that deserve the same level of repugnance that meets misconduct in Washington or on Wall Street.

The cost of misconduct to the individual researcher is tragic in itself. Recently, Shervert Frazier, one of the nation's most prominent psychiatrists, was forced to resign his post at Harvard's McLean Hospital after Harvard Medical School officials verified charges that he plagiarized material included in four papers written between 1966 and 1975.

But the cost can extend beyond one person. A University of Pittsburgh researcher published a study on the use of Ritalin and Dexedrine on hyperactive children. He said his results were based on 278 cases; he actually researched only 25 cases. He was convicted of misusing $200,000 in federal funds. But because his results broke new ground, other scientists referred to it, and the state of Michigan based policies on medicating children in institutions on it.

Change the area of concern from public health to global warming, energy policy, or other topics in which science plays a growing role in government decisions, and the potential for damage from ``weird'' science can be staggering, leading to misdirected research, misspent funds, and off-target policy decisions.

To their credit, many institutions - from universities to the National Academy of Science - are adopting ways to reduce fraud and sloppy science. Often the appeal is made based on institutional self-interest: ``If we don't clean up our act, we'll lose research grants.'' That's fine as far as it goes; but that reasoning threatens to reduce the rationale for ethical behavior to one of costs vs. benefits.

Fortunately, reported cases of research misconduct are relatively rare. But the pressures that lead to shaky research are enormous and growing. The weight given to the number of published papers, the need to pull in grant money, the potential commercial gain of research work - all play a role. Only an innate sense of the value of ethically conducted research for its own sake will provide the foundation for consistent resistance to those pressures.

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