ROBERT MILLIKAN won the 1923 Nobel Prize in physics for accurately measuring the charge on the electron. But some of his papers reporting that work wouldn't stand muster today. Millikan failed to explain when he omitted ``questionable'' data to sharpen his results. In our time, when recurring cases of misconduct stain the reputation of the scientific community, such failure can't be tolerated.
The governing council of the United States National Academy of Sciences wants today's young scientists to have no illusions on that point. It uses the great scientist's peccadillo as an object lesson to lead off its lively new booklet on the standards of personal conduct expected of scientists today.
It explains: ``Millikan felt he knew just how far he could trust his raw data. He often jotted down in his notebooks what he thought were good reasons for excluding data. However he glossed over these exclusions in some of his published papers, and by present standards this is not acceptable. Scientists must be willing to acknowledge the limitations of their data if they are not to mislead others ....''
The brochure - ``On Being a Scientist'' - covers the spectrum of misconduct from data fudging, idea stealing, and sloppy record keeping to outright fraud. It explains how dangerous such misconduct can be for science itself.
Scientific research is no longer mainly a low-budget occupation for individual investigators like Millikan. It's a massive social enterprise backed by billions of dollars of public and industrial money and often carried on by large teams. It's a high- stakes game in which the competition for funding, jobs, and profits tempts the players to cut corners. It's also a game in which the scent of misconduct now invites government control that could stifle scientific freedom. What's even more dangerous, the loss of mutual trust that misconduct can breed among scientists themselves could destroy the enterprise from within.
How is it, the academy asks, that ``the limited, fallible work of individual scientists [is] converted into the enduring edifice of scientific knowledge?'' It notes that researchers have to constantly decide how to do their work and present it to others. Often those decisions involve ``value-laden judgments, personal desires, and even a researcher's personality and style.'' Yet reliable knowledge emerges from this intensely human process because one group's efforts can be checked by others.
Millikan got away with data fudging because others could validate his conclusions. Today, research pours out so voluminously it can't all be checked. Much work has to be taken on faith as other researchers build upon it. This puts a premium on the integrity of the original research as published. Flawed work will ultimately be uncovered. But the cost in wasted time and resources can be enormous. If any substantial distrust of scientific publications were to develop, the scientific enterprise would collapse. The academy stresses this point.
As cases of misconduct have surfaced over the past two decades, the potential for mistrust has increased, as has the pressure for government policing. Thus, the scientific establishment in the United States is under the gun to clean up its act. The academy's brochure is one step in meeting this obligation. It is to be given to all graduate science students. But the rest of the scientific community would do well to read it - and heed it. ``On Being a Scientist'' is available from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave., N.W. Washington, DC 20418. $5 a copy.