Friday, May 13, 2005

Mark Burnett and Donald Trump plant the seeds of a wild idea to improve the scientific community.

Ah, May, when finals draw near and the networks are in sweeps. The time of year when shows like The Apprentice somehow manage to resonate with the material in my "Ethics in Science" class.

I'm sure an intervention has already been scheduled, but thanks for asking.

It's a tricky thing to teach science students about responsible conduct of research when you've seen too much of how real scientists behave. The problem is less about scientists of low character than about the realities of the lab-coat-clad-dog eat dog world of academic science, and the strategies one takes to survive in it. Indeed, it seems that one of the possible impediments to being an ethical scientist would be an academic culture where being ethical puts you at a competitive disadvantage.

To do science, you usually need a lab, library access, and assistants. One way to get these is to find a university post. But here, you enter the battle for scarce resources. There are more job applicants than jobs, more tenure seekers than people who get tenure. More people apply for grants than can get funded. Only one research group can isolate ooblek first. Even with the gazillion scholarly scientific journals, not every manuscript will get published.

One kind of strategy such an environment might trigger: It's me against the rest of them.

I'll form alliances to the extent I can because that will help me advance faster, but I'll be watching my back. And, if I see an opportunity, I'll take it.

Probably the opportunity won't be one of the "high crimes" of science (fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism). You wouldn't want to be caught doing one of those ... it makes you look pathetic. Then again, if it's a matter of passing a crucial test, getting the grant that could make the rest of the career, bending the rules would be preferable to blowing it and having to leave academia.

And of course, there's the smart stuff you can do to get an edge. Put enough in your Methods section, but not so much that your competitors can replicate your system the first time they try. Figure out how to get the greatest number of publications out of each completed experiment. Give the data a soothing massage. Keep your ears open at conferences, department seminars, and the water cooler, but be sure not to say much about the details of your research or how close you are to a finding. Maximize your payoff from each of your collaborations while minimizing the amount of effort you need to put into it. Work your grad students like slaves; soon enough they'll be your competitors so you can't spend too much sympathy on them.

Sometimes playing to win means doing something you might not be proud of later. Or at least, doing something you won't be proud of if you get caught. But part of how you've gotten as far as you have in the competition is that it has been valuable to others to have you there. If you've been bringing in large grants and making a splash with your publications, that's good for your university. If you've got collaborators, they've got a stake in your good name (and they certainly don't want to have to retract any of their papers just because you happen to be a coauthor). So are these folks going to be clamoring for your complete ouster from the community of science? Probably not. You'll be more careful the next time...

I am not, of course, claiming the community of scientists is actually made up of individuals who take this kind of attitude. Not at all. I can't think of a single scientist anywhere who could be thinking like this, and if I could, I certainly wouldn't name names. Who would think that academic scientists are susceptible to politics and garden variety human weakness?

This is where The Apprentice got me thinking.

I've been fairly bored with this season of The Apprentice, in part because the modus operandi of the candidates for the "job" with Donald Trump is well-established by now. Do what advances your interests. When someone else is in charge of a project, it is a much better investment of effort to catalog the ways in which s/he sucks rather than to contribute an idea or hard work that could secure a win. In the boardroom, stabbing your colleague in the back is standard procedure, and it need not be based on the truth of what actually happened on the task so long as you can persuade The Donald. The editors, of course, include the relevant footage from the task so we can see just how rotten and dishonest these candidates are being as they draw their daggers.

Ho hum. That's so season 2.

So, television addict that I am, I thought to myself, "Next season they should have a team of these aspiring corporate weasels competing against a team of people who want not to work for Donald Trump, ever. Because the people who don't want to work for him will give the people who do want to work for him a good and righteous trouncing just on principle." Change the payoff and you change the motivation structure, which in turn (I hypothesize) would change the behavior. People who are motivated not by the promise of a Trump-y job that only one of them could have in the end, but rather by the desire to whup the weasels, would have much more reason to align their interests, shoulder their fair share of the burden, and give accurate testimony in the boardroom. Their common goal would supersede their individual desire not to get fired (because dude, they don't want to work for Trump!).

I think the idealized picture of the community of science usually puts all the scientists on a single team with the same goal: finding the truth. Since finding the truth is hard, they have to work together, but they can do so because of this common goal. And somehow, magically, no petty self-interest ever gets in the way. And they find the truth and they all life happily ever after.

Real academic science isn't quite this ideal. But, arguably, it's not entirely populated with selfish bastards who might even sacrifice truth to get ahead. We seem to have some of each. But what would happen if the non-weasel scientists could find each other and team up with the express purposes of: (1) working together to discover the truth, and (2) giving the weasely scientists a good and righteous trouncing, just on principle?

That would be entertaining.


At 6:39 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

I'm in, can I be part of the non-weasley scientists? i'm quite happy to kick some weasley-scientist butt.


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