We’ve all heard of the global banking fraud. But corruption in science is also costing us billions. Increasing evidence points to an epidemic in scientific misconduct as governments, science institutes and the media fail to address the common core of this societal malaise.
In Britain, as institutions such as the Institute of Physics and the BBC are currently being exposed in corruption and incompetence, we examine the latest data to see how far scientists have been falling down that slippery slope to ignominy.
Daniele Fanelli first brought attention to this issue in 2009 with the publication of her shocking findings in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS One. In this article we explore why, despite growing evidence of widespread scientific misconduct, few media outlets, governments or science institutions appear willing to address the issue.
Surveys among scientists themselves suggest we may draw strong parallels between the deregulation of the banking sector and the self-regulation of the press and the rise of corruption in the science. We see that, just as with any organized crime, scientists are more prone to commit data fraud when three factors combine: significant financial reward or prestige acquired from being dishonest, lax standards and/or regulation, and a prevailing institutional mindset that tacitly condones or ignores improper behavior.
Fanelli’s study was based on a review of 21 scientific misconduct surveys conducted between 1986 and 2005. It found there existed far more corruption than the public stereotype of science showed. Fanelli, of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, found that one in seven scientists admit to knowing of colleagues who have committed serious breaches of professional conduct. Her research showed 46 percent of scientists surveyed admit they have seen “questionable practices,” including data “cherry-picking” and altering scientific findings by work colleagues to fit the agenda of a funding source. Yet, only two percent of all scientists surveyed admitted to having faked results themselves, suggesting the problem may be an inherent endemic refusal to confront the issue.
When Mainstream Media & Institutions Enable Science Corruption
The evidence certainly suggests that the problem emanates from the top down. Last week two former senior figures on the Energy Committee of the Institute of Physics (IoP) triggered a new scandal by blowing the whistle on years of “institutional bias” over global warming hype at the top of one of Britain’s most venerated science bodies.
Outraged by years of endless pro-green shenanigans by administrators within the prestigious and once unimpeachable Institute of Physics, prominent IoP members Peter Gill and Terri Jackson, leaked hundreds of official emails revealing coercion, bullying and censorship to favor lobbyists in the global warming agenda. Despite the gravity of these new revelations not one mainstream news outlet chose to pick up on the story. Of course, with so much of the “old” media still sold on environmentalism organisations like the IoP have little to fear if exposed for having long sold out to Big Green.
And this is hardly surprising when you consider the true extent of media bias shown recently in the astonishing “28Gate” scandal. Last month compelling new evidence exposed the monolothic BBC, Britain’s prime public broadcaster, rigging a key policy-making committee with pro-global warming advocates, in contempt of the BBC’s legal requirement concerning strict impartiality.
As Fanelli’s study proved, when scientists are able to see others are covering up for them or condoning their wrong doing then they are more likely to massage, alter or interpret their data in ways to suit their paymasters – such changes can be very subtle and sometimes even escape the researchers’ conscious control. This is the realm of “noble cause corruption” and is a tag increasingly being applied to climate researchers eager to “save the planet.”
And What of Our Political Leaders?
But there is also another sinister element in the mix. There is a growing public awareness in Britain of the unwillingness of government to correct corruptive practices among the bigger players in society. A perception is growing that it is the petty wrongdoer who will be punished hardest while criminality among the elite classes may more readily escape justice. Whether this perception is right or wrong, politicians must take the ultimate blame for it. History tells us we often judge our political leaders most critically by how they react to a crisis. But how many big bankers faced criminal prosecutions in the wake of the banking collapse? How many climate scientists proven to have rigged their data were brought to trial? What will Prime Minister Cameron’s government do next in the wake of the damning Leveson Report on press standards?
It is this pattern of inertia at the highest level that may in part explain why Fanelli’s study, despite much soul-searching upon publication in 2009, has since generated so little action. Let’s not also forget that the UK government investigated Climategate. Lord Oxburgh in 2010 officially identified climate researchers as poor data handlers creating “errors” that would be inexcusable among trained statisticians. But what was done about it?
Oxburgh had recommended that the home of the climate scandal, the University of East Anglia (UEA), should engage outside statisticians to ensure no further repeat of their “error-prone” mangling of Earth’s historic temperatures. The BBC’s Richard Black didn’t even mention that key specific recommendation. Thereafter, the story dropped off the mainstream media radar and there have been no follow up reports as to what, if any government action followed to ensure that the UEA cleaned up its act, despite the second-rate university continuing to enjoy lucrative taxpayer grants.
Cynics will say the mainstream media has successfully swept the Climategate scandal under the carpet for a reason. Broadcasters are again plying their usual glib climate scare stories premised with “scientists say;” as if what climate scientists peddle is somehow beyond journalistic skepticism.
Only in the blogosphere does it appear actual cutting-edge journalism is being done. It is also the place where new science associations are being formed. The “old” media appears is as inept or biased in its reporting on the rise in science fraud as it has been about the banking fraud or journalistic “phone hacking” and other misconduct. But “cooking the data,” is a long-standing process that mathematician Charles Babbage in 1830 defined as “an art of various forms, the object of which is to give to ordinary observations the appearance and character of those of the highest degree of accuracy.” And it’s an age-old problem because – as we saw in banking, so it is in science – numbers are all too easily “mined” to forge a statistically significant relationship to support predetermined expectation. Too often conflicts of interest are concealed and as one observer noted,“misbehaviours lie somewhere on a continuum between scientific fraud, bias, and simple carelessness, so their direct inclusion in the “falsification” category is debatable, although their negative impact on research can be dramatic. Henceforth, these misbehaviours will be indicated as “questionable research practices.””
Fanelli’s study warrants serious consideration because she found that no less than a third of scientists admit to using such “questionable research practices.” With so much science now being taxpayer-funded it is alarming to know that a third of the science we pay for is “questionable.” Moreover, Fanelli identifies that the surveys suggest a great reluctance among scientists to admit to dishonesty, such that it is believed the actual frequencies of misconduct could be far higher than this.
Fanelli is sure that number is very much “a conservative estimate of the true prevalence of scientific misconduct.” And as with science, as with banking so that the objective-minded soul-searchers among us can be left in little doubt this is a societal problem.
So when Fanelli concludes, “data fabrication and falsification –let alone other questionable practices- are more prevalent than most previous estimates have suggested,” we can rest assured that self-serving institutes like the BBC and Institute of Physics (and many politicians) have been enablers in perpetuating the ongoing rot within science. In the same way our political reacted to the banking collapse, so are they responding to the decline in scientific standards – if it serves their interests to turn a blind eye then they will.
Until we see the day when a public outcry forces a change, expect little action triggered by the Leveson Report into press standards just as there were no criminal prosecutions in the wake of the banking collapse or against government scientists who cooked the climate books.