Any walk along Fifth Avenue in New York is an experience. On one such walk on Sunday, April 22, I encountered heavy rains and took shelter in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The celebrant was opening his sermon by stating there has been an increase in the number of research articles being retracted from publications in major scientific journals due to scientific misconduct.
It drew my attention and interest. I found a seat and sat down.
He went on to add often such publications are shown to have knowingly included fraudulent data. Further, he attributed the wrongdoings to pressures on publication for the purposes of promotion, acute competition in grant funding and greed.
He went on to identify scientific research as the noblest of professions reserved for intellectuals. He emphasized society counts on them for insights from the past and open new avenues and direction for the future. Most of what we see around us, he continued, is directly attributable to scientific research. It has changed the way we communicate, travel and live.
Today, we live longer and healthier lives all because of scientific advances. More important, scientific research holds the key to new challenges associated with world’s most pressing problems that include environmental concerns, deadly diseases and poverty.
Finally, he made the connection between scientific misconduct and moral weaknesses. This he attributed to an increasing lack of religious directives.
Whether we like his explanation or not, it brings home the point scientific misconduct is not as rare as often thought.
I am not surprised scientific misconduct is known to happen. Also, it results in retraction of publications. What I am surprised about is the fact common people attending church services are indeed interested in such an issue.
Why else would the priest begin the service with this example? He could have chosen a long list of human failings listed in the New York Times that day.
To me, this example suggests scientific fraud and misconduct is reaching the kitchen table and has gone beyond the limited few who are directly involved in scientific research. It is becoming a concern for mainstream society. More important, it is eroding public trust in scientists and intellectuals, slowly but surely.
Scientists cannot afford to loose their ethics. They must protect their integrity. The public trust they hold is their biggest asset. Once lost it may be gone forever.
Ask an (honest) politician.
Most scientists and researchers of record are and truthful. They are dedicated and committed and associate with trustworthy co-workers. At the same time some do fall prey to misconduct directly or indirectly. Also, the causes for such individual failings are not simple and no single measure including religious directives will eliminate them.
What is needed is an inclusion of ethics training for our research students, mentoring of new researchers and a zero tolerance by scientific institutions supporting and promoting research. The way I see it, it’s not too late and the future is at stake. Society needs confidence in science as much as scientists need the confidence of society.
Shiva M. Singh is a Department of Biology professor and Distinguished University Professor.