Friday, December 02, 2005

From the mouths of ... college seniors.

Last week, I was "in the field" working on my research. The professor whose laboratory I was observing mentioned to the students in the lab that I'm the one who teaches the ethics-for-science-majors class. One of the students, clearly a wiseass (and I can tell because I crack wise myself), asked, "Oh, do you teach how to fabricate data?"

"No," I replied. "In the class we talk about why fabricating data is a Very Bad Thing for scientists to do. Besides, you know that people get fired for doing that kind of thing."

"Sure," said the wiseass. "But what happens when your research just doesn't work? You need to produce results or you'll get fired. You keep your employer happy by generating results ... if things don't work out in the lab, what else are you supposed to do?" Smirking just a little, the wiseass rattled off a list of professions in which lying is de rigueur. Why not science, too?

Now, I recognize that these questions were tongue in cheek, asked by a student experiencing the colossal difficulty of getting original laboratory research to do anything one could descibe as "working". At the same time, students like the wiseass are keen observers of the world of science. Scientists in industry are part of an organization that needs to worry about the bottom line. No results may mean no marketable product, which eventually means the company goes under and the scientists are out of jobs. The folks at Merck know this is a real problem -- patent protection is about to end on one of their big money-makers, and the Vioxx results turned out not to be as promising as was initially thought (what with the life-threatening side effects). So, with fewer marketable inventions than was hoped, Merck looks like it will also be employing fewer scientists.

Obviously, you wouldn't want Merck scientists making stuff up (or even tweaking real results to make them look better) just to please the boss and have something to put on the market ... people could get hurt, and then come the lawsuits and the downsizing. But the close connection between success in the laboratory (and in the clinical trials) and keeping the company afloat has to do something to the psychology of the young researcher. It is a fact of the scientific life that most of the experiments people try do not work, and very few work on the first (or second, or third, ...) try. Kuhn may have been right that the good scientist, encountering difficulties in the lab, blames herself rather than her theory for the problem. (Also, there's a lot of blaming of equipment and reagents, often legitimate.) But when you're the new scientist in the lab, fresh out of school and with less experience than those around you, how can you help but worry that the boss will blame your lack of results on your scientific ineptitude? How long do you figure you have to turn it around before they thank you for your time and send you to human resources for your exit interview?

One of the characteristics of scientific research in the real world is you don't know how it will come out ahead of time. You may have some strong hunches, but hunches mean nothing without real results. And, if you're trying something that no one has ever done before, the very best plan is just a guess. It may fail spectacularly. There is no amount of hard work and technical skill that can guarantee your success. Maybe you'll find a way to solve the problem your research is aimed at solving, but maybe you won't.

Yet you're also trying to solve the problem of staying employed as a scientist in a world where solving problems (or not) can be the deciding factor in who stays employed. You can start to understand where the college senior contemplating a career in science gets stressed out.

Experiments that fail still tell us something, even if it's just information about approaches to solving the problem that don't work. If there were journals devoted to experimental approaches that did not work, I guarantee you they would be read regularly and thoroughly by working scientists. But short of recognizing the scholarly contributions of scientists who identify unsuccessful protocols, is there a way to let scientists just do good science without having to keep their eye on the bottom line?

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At 4:24 PM, Blogger Unlearned Hand said...

In which professions is lying de rigeur? I'm curious since I'm in another profession, much maligned for perceived dishonesty - the law.

It happens, lawyers lie. They can also lose their law license for doing so in the wrong circumstances, among a menu of leser penalties such as suspensions and fines. There are a range of sanctions for any infraction from to deceiving the court or missappropriating client funds (on a damn strict standard, that) to delaying in returning client phone calls or crossing aesthetic lines in advertising.

It's a differnt field, but we have bosses, too, and sometimes we have to deliver bad news. We get the best outcome by presenting reality honestly to our bosses and assessing where we go from there. Sometimes the law is just against us. And there's a word for a case when you mislead the client into soldiering on in an unwinable cause; it's malpractice.

So there are my stakes: losing clients, losing jobs, and losing the career. What are the stakes in other fields?

As to your inquiry, identifying that an attractive dead end is a dead end has a value, doesn't it? In fact, in the bleeding edge of a given field, one wonders if that could be thought of as a trade secret.

At 4:55 PM, Blogger Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D. said...

In which professions is lying de rigeur?

The student mentioned advertising and politics -- not law. (I come from a family with a fair number of lawyers, so I was kinda surprise he left law out.)

... identifying that an attractive dead end is a dead end has a value, doesn't it? In fact, in the bleeding edge of a given field, one wonders if that could be thought of as a trade secret.

I agree that establishing where the dead ends are is of great value. However, for the academic scientist it's often hard to convert this valuable knowledge into publications or grant dollars. For the scientist in industry knowledge of the dead end (that your competitor may not have) could indeed be a trade secret ... but that pulls against one of the other presumed norms of science, namely that knowledge is to be shared. Obviously, serving your corporate master imposes limits on the knowledge you can share, but I wonder how much secrecy the system can tolerate before science stops working the way it's supposed to.

At 9:48 PM, Blogger coturnix said...

For quite a few years now I've been hearing rumblings about a push to publish negative results online for everyone to be warned of the stuff that does not work (dead ends). Is that happening, do you know?

At 6:16 AM, Blogger Catdaddy-n-Dr.Squeeky said...

I take it that the wiseass student later transfered to Business Administration?

As for lawyers, their ethics standards call for them to represent their clients with zeal. Such standards clash with those established, say, for social scientists. Some do lie, I think, from my experience, that most chose their truth carefully, all with the goal to represent their client's wishes. Could I do it, no. But it is what they ARE supposed to do.

As forensic psychologist (can't guess from my blog), it was rather difficult for me to fully understand what the lawyers with who I was working were doing until I got accustomed to the idea that their actions were guided by their ethics standard (which differed from mine as a psychologist). Once I undertood their motivation and duties well, I enjoyed working with them very much (and never took cross-examinations as personal attacks).
CD and DS

At 8:09 AM, Blogger Unlearned Hand said...

CD & DS, zealous representation is an interesting thing. The systematic assumption of law is that the adversarial process is the best way to the truth, or it least this is claimed as the assumption.

There are other concerns, such as vindicating the client's notion that justice be done. Some suggest that getting a hearing with the indicia of fairness and due process is possibly more essential than reaching the right result in all cases. The homeplate ump sometimes makes bad calls, but you want the perception that overall the game is fairly called or you want a new ump. I would attach a similar role to zealous advocacy - having someone in the adjudicatory system who is on your side makes you feel as if you have at least had your best shot at justice. This is actually my best argument against first killing all the lawyers.

At 9:30 AM, Blogger Doctor Free-Ride, Ph.D. said...

I take it that the wiseass student later transfered to Business Administration?

He really was joking -- but part of what made the question funny is the very real sense that you can be a very good scientist and still be screwed (because the synthesis never happens or whatever). While honesty is necessary (but not sufficient) for scientific success, success in your job as a scientist (at least from the point of view of keeping the company afloat and keeping your job) looks like it might be assisted by the occasional stretching of the truth. It's a daunting prospect for a science student on the verge of looking for a job, and humor seems like a better response than curling into a ball and crying.

As for the representing-with-zeal thing that lawyers are supposed to do, it's actually not so different from how scientific debates are supposed to work. The big difference is that all sides in the scientific arena are supposed to be interested in establishing the truth of the matter -- even if that means your own initial take on what the truth of the matter is ends up losing the debate. So, unlike criminal defendants, there are some scientific positions that just won't be defended (because they are so clearly wrong), and scientific advocates will be a lot more willing to ask possibly damning questions of the positions they're defending before they head to court.

Coturnix, I don't know of any online journals of dead-ends, but if I find any I'll be linking them!

At 8:13 AM, Blogger academic coach said...

the difficulty for grad students who don't find something 'significant' is so difficult. Esp when they have done great work but can't get it published, because, well, you can't publish the null hypothesis. I wish there was a journal of dead ends. It would be an enormous contribution to science.

I also hate when everything becomes about reproducing the results of the big guys and big labs. sometimes newbies are more meticulous.

thanks for this important and thoughtful post.

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