Big Brother, University Edition

Academic research faculty can, at the drop of a hat, recite some of the more ridiculous hoops they have to go through in order to conduct their research.  Lengthy forms that have no relevance, interrogation by accounting staff on small purchases, etc.  But all this might just become warm, fuzzy memories of the good old days.

Why? Consider that Duke University might be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars because of scientific fraud committed by one of their academics. And if there is a real risk of losing money, as every university faculty member knows, there is no shortage of overreaction that upper echelons of universities will engage in.  The question is, what will that overreaction look like? And the inference is that research fraud, beyond clouding scientific understanding, carries a real risk of further diverting honorable scientists from their research tasks.

The Duke case basically alleges that university personnel knew enough to know that the grant applications being put in by this researcher were based on fraudulent behavior. Arguably the closest analog for this would be the growth of sexual harassment/discrimination investigations on campus.  Many years ago, such transgressions might be well known within the faculty but winked at or maybe winced at but not reported or punished.  Then the most egregious cases came to light and there were demands that sexual predation on campus end (to be clear, perfectly sane and justifiable demands). It is the university response here that is relevant: campuses hired staff to oversee a system of education and evaluation.  All university personnel are now tasked with reporting sexual harassment or discrimination; campuses have offices that then are supposed to evaluate and deal with such complaints (ours had until recently the fine title of the Office of Discrimination and Harassment, which sounds more like a training academy for misbehavior; it is now the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance).  Training is compulsory. In essence, the university has incorporated a semi-judicial system within its walls, one arguably lacking in training, law, or structure to both prosecute the guilty and protect the innocent (a point that has frequently come up in cases that make newspaper headlines, where the guilty are still allowed to stay in class with their victims and the innocent are hounded out of school). The point is not whether this has succeeded in reducing or eliminating sexual harassment and discrimination (a topic that would require far more thought than GG has time for), the point is that universities respond by adding more oversight, frequently with little regard for niceties built into the criminal justice system.

So it seems highly likely that in the years to come there will be a professionally-staffed Office of Research Misconduct on most campuses (there is already a federal Office of Research Integrity, and the University of Washington has an Office of Research Misconduct Proceedings, so there you go).  [And yes, nearly all campuses presently have somebody responsible for such issues, it is just that this will grow from faculty committees to permanent staff] This will of course represent yet another dilution of research and tuition dollars, so the questions will include, is it cost-effective, and just who will be part of this effort?  Almost certainly the answer to the former question will be no, it is not cost effective, just as the proliferation of audits and accountants at universities costs more than actual financial fraud associated with scientific grants. Who gets dragged into this?  Probably everyone. Presumably faculty and students will be told that they must report instances of research misbehavior to this office, which will then have to investigate.  It is easy to imagine that disputes between grad students, postdocs, and faculty could produce bogus but not easily refuted claims of research misbehavior. It is possible that some offices will become proactive, demanding to oversee ongoing research to assure that there is no fraud. It will come to pass that some offices will get too comfortable with some questionable behavior and will then themselves be the focus of outrage.  There will certainly be overzealous offices that will require thorough investigations of even the most trivial oversights or obvious retribution schemes.  Some of these will spill over into the courts.

At this point the comparison with sexual harassment and discrimination offices breaks down, for while interpersonal misbehaviors are best investigated by people with expertise different from faculty and staff, who can best investigate research misbehavior? In the Duke case, other scientists within the university had to examine the results of experiments and, in some cases, reproduce the questionable experiments. (Many apparently had long harbored suspicions, which is the basis for the lawsuit). This is a really expensive undertaking, both financially as well as taking time away from skilled scientists.  Having a colleague who cheats might not only taint your school’s reputation, his behavior might require you to abandon research you were undertaking so you could document his transgressions. For some fields at many schools the investigation would have to come from outside the school.  One can envision a new class of professionals who specialize in investigating research malpractice much as a class of professional expert witnesses exists now for various court proceedings. None of this would come cheaply.

It used to be that academic programs were the big liability risk for many large schools.  Now it is looking like biology/medical departments might be far greater risks owing to the prevalence of both large grants and research fraud in that field (if found guilty of taking federal money on the basis of fraud, the guilty party can owe triple the money they got; paying off a football coach might consume a couple tens of millions of dollars at most; paying off fraud claims from this one researcher at Duke could cost $600 million). Scientific fraud now looks to be a multi-pronged threat to academic research science: beyond diverting money from honest investigators, aside from creating cruft in the literature that has to be cleaned out, such behavior can directly punish others by creating even more oversight and more demands on academic researchers’ time.

Avoiding this dystopia might be impossible at this point.  Most scientists are not eager to evaluate the ethics of a colleague’s behavior; launching a formal complaint against a departmental colleague is one way to destroy an academic department (GG is aware of some examples–in some ways the oddest was the decision at Caltech long ago to eliminate their meteorology department, a decision Caltech folklore connects to a faculty member issuing detailed forecasts for weather covering a coming year). So policing by colleagues seems unlikely, but as research malpractice expands, pressure on universities to prevent it will only grow. We can only hope for procedures and expenditures that minimize the impact on honest scientists.


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