Tag Archives: Integrity

Social and Moral Responsibility of a Scientist

To what extent do scientists and engineers have a responsibility to try to solve the world’s great problems at large? Let me state right at the beginning of the post that I do not have an answer to this question, but I just wanted to raise a few points to start a discussion.

During the WWII period in the United States, many of the nation’s top physicists were corralled to Los Alamos, New Mexico to work at the Manhattan Project in effort to build a nuclear weapon. Moreover, the scientists at Bell Labs, a private laboratory under the auspices of AT&T, aided in the war effort most notably by working on radar technology and also by enabling secure communication among the Allies by developing SIGSALY.

During the Cold War Space Race, US scientists and engineers were again called upon, this time at NASA, to make sure the the United States was able to land an astronaut on the moon before the Soviets. With a lot of money and effort, scientists were able to deliver on the promise by John F. Kennedy to do so before 1970.

While these were under different circumstances, i.e. wartime, scientists responded when called upon by the government. There are other numerous examples outside the US, where scientists have worked in close quarters with the government, such as in the former USSR.

Today, however, the issues are a little different. The looming potential problems caused by greenhouse gas emissions due to rapid industrial development are a “peacetime” concern. This time, also, it isn’t a single government that has to corral the scientists, it is all of them.

The question now is, even in the absence of large-scale government action on these matters, to what extent are physicists and other scientists responsible for addressing these problems? Many engineering departments and national labs are currently engaged in developing battery technologies, more efficient solar cells, transparent solar cells, etc. (funded by the government). Many physicists continue to work on superconductivity with the hope that it may solve the energy transportation and storage problem. But the urgency is clearly not the same as in wartime.

It is largely public money that educates most of us, funds most of our research, yet much of the research we undertake does not have foreseeable implications for the grander problems at large. The fact that scientists and engineers are some of the best placed in terms of education and technical ability to solve these problems does put some burden on us.

Left alone, I would love to spend all my time doing basic science without looking up to see that the world is facing some pretty grand challenges. Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury, and I do think it would be fair for governments to require us to address these problems by requesting PIs to spend a certain percentage of their research time devoted to these kinds of pressing problems. Perhaps a wartime mindset is needed to solve this problem.

Lastly, I would like to stress that in the two cases mentioned above, WWII and the Space Race, the US economy came out faring better after the heavy investment in science and technology. Industrialized nations can do the same in the present time by investing more in the world’s greener energy technologies, which undoubtedly must be the future of humans.

Comments welcome.

What THE WIRE Taught Me About Science

The famous HBO series, The Wire, which many have called the greatest television show of all time (e.g. here and here), has a lot to say about urban decay, race relations, and the structure of power and organizations . There is one theme that is particularly relevant to us in the sciences that The Wire profoundly addresses: the competition between careerism and good work.

In the series, many that get promoted in the hierarchical structure of the police department are not the best policemen, but the ones that are the most career-oriented. In one of the more memorable quotes on the show (even though there are so many!), Lt. Daniels says to Detective Carver, who is about to be promoted:

Couple weeks from now, you’re gonna be in some district somewhere with 11 or 12 uniforms looking to you for everything. And some of them are gonna be good police. Some of them are gonna be young and stupid. A few are gonna be pieces of shit. But all of them will take their cue from you. You show loyalty, they learn loyalty. You show them it’s about the work, it’ll be about the work. You show them some other kinda game, then that’s the game they’ll play. I came on in the Eastern, and there was a piece-of-shit lieutenant hoping to be a captain, piece-of-shit sergeants hoping to be lieutenants. Pretty soon we had piece-of-shit patrolmen trying to figure the job for themselves. And some of what happens then is hard as hell to live down. Comes a day you’re gonna have to decide whether it’s about you or about the work.

There is advice there for both advisers and students alike.

Advisers: (1) Pick students whose motivations lie in doing good work. (2) Show your students that what you do is about the work, about producing good science and not about publishing x hurried papers. (3) Help your students careers (honestly and without too much hype) when they aren’t looking (e.g. nominate them for awards, talk them up when you get the chance, etc.).

Students: (1) The adviser you pick will ultimately have a strong influence on where you end up and how you think about science in general; choose wisely. (2) Ask older graduate students, postdocs and professors questions; a large part of scientific development is figuring how/where to find interesting problems. (3) Do good work: Do not cut corners, do not hurriedly publish, be thorough and do not be dishonest.

In The Wire, there is a constant battle between the higher-ranked officials in the police department (who want to bring in low-level drug dealers under pressure from even higher-ranked officials and politicians), and the lower-ranked officials (who want to work a case until the entire case is solved so that they can bring in the drug kingpin and not just low-level middlemen). Fight the pressure to publish (to the best of your ability), and publish well when you do (sorry if you can’t see the analogy here!)

Alright, I’ll get off the soapbox now and just make one last comment: I have tried my best to follow these principles in graduate school (and have not always succeeded), but I do still think The Wire outlines a simple code to follow.

In the end, even in a show as pessimistic as The Wire, often good police got promoted and did their jobs better than the career-oriented ones. It is possible to do good work and survive even in this academic climate.

Also, if you’re a fan of The Wire, I recommend reading this: http://aaronhuertas.com/2011/11/what-i-learned-from-watching-the-wire-three-times/

Plastic Fantastic

In the past year, I got the chance to read Plastic Fantastic by Eugenie Samuel Reich, a nonfiction work following the short career of Jan Hendrik Schon. Just in case you haven’t heard of him, Schon was one of the biggest fraudsters in scientific history. In a short period between 2000-2001, Schon published a series of  subfield-creating results ranging from superconductivity at 117K in intercalated buckyballs to light-emitting field effect transistors. Most notably, he also announced the discovery of self-assembled molecular field effect transistors (SAMFETs), which would have had the potential to revolutionize the processors in one’s computer and thereby the economy. Most of his results, including the ones mentioned, were found to have been fabricated.

It is quite remarkable that Schon was able to publish 15 first-author papers in either Nature or Science in a time frame spanning from 2000-2001, while also publishing a whole slew of papers in other journals as well.  Is this the absurd length one must go to for one to get caught? While physicists tend to be quite rigorous when trying to explain data, they tend to generally be much more trusting of colleagues that produce the data.

Although the book can be quite gossipy at times, it achieves the goal of imparting to the reader a sense of skepticism about published data. While he may have been the most egregious of the lot, Schon is not alone in perpetrating scientific dishonesty (the recent case of STAP cells comes to mind). It is pretty clear that many cases of “fudging” and/or fabrication occur that go unpunished and are never brought to light.

One aspect of the book that I found particularly disturbing is the effect that Schon’s results had on some careers of young scientists. Many graduate students spent years attempting to replicate his results without success in what is considered the most important years of one’s scientific development. Some young scientific careers were no doubt destroyed because of Schon’s outlandish claims.

One cannot stress enough the importance of scientific integrity and reporting accurate, reproducible data. This book may not be the best-written, but it serves an important purpose in opening one’s eyes to the ridiculous lengths to which one must go before being found out as a fraudster. This book has left no doubt in my mind that I have read papers containing “fudged” data and also that I will do so in the future. I just hope that I don’t spend years attempting to reproduce such a result.