SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Scientific fraud

THIS YEAR something quite unprecedented has happened in the world of physics. In two separate, highly respected research laboratories, senior researchers were dismissed for publishing faked results.

Uranium is the heaviest stable element in nature with an atomic number of 92. More massive elements can be made but they are unstable. However, it is possible that elements with atomic numbers of 120 or more could be stable, producing a whole new field of physics and chemistry. Many laboratories are working to make such elements and in 1999, physicists at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory in California announced that they had made the heaviest elements ever with atomic numbers 116 and 118. But this year the laboratory was forced to announce that the results had been fabricated. A physicist, Victor Ninov, who was in charge of data analysis for the experiments, was fired.

On the other side of the continent, Jan Hendrik Schön, a physicist at Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, New Jersey was forging a brilliant career in the field of nanoelectronics – the production of ever smaller and faster semi-conductor devices for digital systems. With 80 papers published in two years, Schön was even being talked about as a possible Nobel prize winner. But other researchers grew more and more suspicious until finally someone pointed out that he had published identical graphs in separate papers, supposedly on different phenomena. The laboratory convened an external investigation panel and in September Schön was found guilty of misconduct and sacked.

Obviously, in scientific research mistakes are made and incorrect results are published. A few years ago the supposed discovery of nuclear fusion at room temperature caused a considerable stir. Laboratories have several times announced the observation of new fundamental particles and later had to retract. But in those cases, defective techniques, over-hopeful data analysis, or even experimental incompetence were responsible. What makes the two recent cases different is that they seem to have been the result of deliberate fraud. And it looks as though such cheating is becoming more common.

The reason is not difficult to see. Most researchers work on short-term contracts of one or two years. As pressure on funding heightens there is more and more pressure to produce results which will impress sponsors and persuade them to continue doling out the cash. Inevitably some people will fall foul of the temptation to ‘pad’ their results or even to fabricate exciting discoveries.

To an extent, physicists can shrug their shoulders. Crooks and cheats occur in every field of human endeavour. And any serious fraud is bound to be found out when other laboratories try to repeat and verify the experiments (as happened in the cases above). That is the strength of science. But while this may be acceptable in physics, it is highly unacceptable in other sciences. In the fields of bio-medicine or pharmaceuticals, the pressures to produce new drugs and the prizes to be won are much greater. And experiments are not carried out on inert matter but on real human beings. A botched or fraudulent test on drug safety may well result in disastrous side effects for people taking the drugs. The repeating and verifying process is carried out on the bodies of those people prescribed the drugs. And, of course, ‘verification’ is not so simple. If patients report unacceptable or unexpected side effects, the whole weight of the big drug companies’ legal and public relations forces swing into action, first to deny any side effects from ‘their’ drugs, and second, if this defence is defeated, to spin out over years the legal process to minimise any compensation for people who have suffered from their fraud or incompetence.

‘Science’ is not an activity that takes place in a vacuum divorced from the pressures of capitalist society. The way in which research is carried out today, whether in University laboratories or in commercial companies, mirrors the crazily accelerating merry-go-round of capitalist society. More mistakes will be made, more frauds will occur.

A proper career structure for research science, tied to a proper funding structure which does not involve a desperate annual search for new funds, is a vital necessity for sane research in all fields of science. But even the most abstract fields of physics are moving further from such a structure as short-term contracts and the search for quick results becomes the rule.

Geoff Jones


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