The Elephant in the Lab

“It’s difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Sinclair Lewis said that in 1935. And although we would like to think we’re much more sophisticated, and worldly, and socially aware than our ancestors of the early 20th century, the truth is that human nature has not changed all that much in the past 80 years.

On the contrary.

If anything, what was true in 1935 is true many times over in 2015. Modern science works within large-scale institutions. These institutions serve to police their members’ work. Yet the survival of the institutions is dependent on the continuing success of their members.

Commenting on the fraud perpetrated at Iowa State University by scientist Dong-Pyou Han, who fabricated data on several multi-million dollar grants, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley stated, “… the federal government was relying on the grant recipients to police fraud” (as reported in The Scientist, Feb. 26, 2015). Chuck was not happy at all.  

Maybe we have forgotten what we already knew decades ago?  

In my novel The First Days of August, Steve August discovers there have been data breaches involving experiments in which he has been participating. In this sense, Steve’s experience may not be too different from that of other researchers in laboratories, clinics, databanks, and research institutes around the world. Sometimes, mistakes happen. Sometimes, people want to take the easy way out. Sometimes, they sweep the dirt under the rug.  

He who discovers such shenanigans faces a tough ethical challenge – be the whistleblower? Risk your job? Buck the system? Or go along to get along?  

The bigger the stakes, the greater the risks, and the tougher the choices.

In Steve’s case, he ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hard to say whether he handled it in the best way possible.  

Overall, I think he did pretty well, considering.

Read 983 times Last modified on Thursday, 10 December 2015 18:05
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