Agence France-Presse (AFP) recently reported that two of the most prominent scientists in the United States have been pressured to resign in the past few days, after it was reported that their methods revealed both their lack of integrity and susceptibility to corruption. (Related: The scientific fraud pandemic; few honest scientists remain.)
One of the most respected scientists in his field, José Baselga, chief medical officer at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, is the published author of hundreds of articles featuring the most cutting-edge cancer research. The New York Times called him "one of the world's top breast cancer doctors" and "a towering figure in the cancer world."
On 8 September, two mainstream media publications – The New York Times and Pro Publica – revealed that Baselga had failed to disclose the fact that he had received millions of dollars from Big Pharma and medical corporations.
Scientists and researchers are expected to reveal this type of conflict of interest, since links between pharmaceutical or medical companies and scientists can bias a researcher’s methods and results. Unfortunately, scientific journals do not investigate to establish these types of ties, relying on the scientists themselves to be honorable and reveal them. (Related: Scientific fraud published in reputable medical journals has soared more than 1,700 percent since 2004, says report.)
Having failed to disclose his links to Big Pharma and being outed by the media, Baselga tendered his resignation on September 13.
Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at the Ivy League Cornell University, sent the next shock-wave through the scientific community. Wansink became famous for his work examining the health effects of pizza and what affects the appetites of children. His Cornell bio calls him "a leading expert in changing eating behavior – both on an individual level and on a mass scale -- using principles of behavioral science." It adds that he is the author of two books which have been translated into 25 different languages, as well as over 200 peer-reviewed journal articles.
Then, last year, investigators raised the alarm about what AFP refers to as the “surprisingly positive results in dozens of his articles.” Messages he sent to a researcher encouraging her to edit her findings to remove results that might cause an upset and “go viral,” were also leaked to the media.
After a year of intensive investigation, the university announced last week that Wansink’s methodology and results were problematic and that he was guilty of “academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.”
Wansink has announced that he will resign at the end of the academic year, and the university has revoked his teaching privileges with immediate effect. In addition, although he has denied all accusations against him, 13 of Wansink’s published articles have been retracted by scientific journals.
Ivan Oransky, co-founder of the website RetractionWatch.com – a Center for Scientific Integrity allied-project that keeps a record of research articles retracted from scientific journals – told AFP that these two corrupt scientists do not represent the full extent of the problem, but are “only the tip of the iceberg.”
"The good news is that we are finally starting to see a lot of these cases become public," Oransky said, adding that in the past, the scientific community has been unwilling to highlight this type of fraud "because they're afraid that talking about them will decrease trust in science and that it will aid and abet anti-science forces."
Slowly but surely, however, scientists are starting to recognize that covering up their co-workers’ wrongdoings simply undermines the integrity of the entire community and encourages other scientists to compromise their own integrity.
"At the end of the day,” Oransky told AFP, “we need to think about science as a human enterprise, we need to remember that it's done by humans. Let's remember that humans make mistakes, they cut corners, sometimes worse."
AFP noted that while a lot of attention has been focused on the biggest problem – financial conflicts of interest – reputational and other pressures can also undermine the integrity of scientists. Since a scientist’s reputation is greatly determined by how many articles they get published, the pressure is immense to produce “new,” cutting-edge results. Very little credit is given to scientists whose work simply validates or confirms previous findings by other researchers.
Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, believes that this needs to change if scientific integrity is to be restored and maintained.
"Most of the work when we're at the boundary of science is messy, has exceptions, has things that don't quite fit," he told AFP. He added that "the bad part of the incentives environment is that the reward system is all about the result."
"Culture change is hard," he noted. "Universities and medical centers are the slowest actors."
While the mainstream scientific community is clearly in turmoil and needs to get its house in order, it is reassuring to know that we can rely on the integrity and accuracy of work by citizen scientists like Mike Adams, founder and editor of Natural News.
Sources for this article include: