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« For whom the blog Tols | Main | Glacial George »
Wednesday
Oct262011

Academics: "No oversight for us"

This is a week old, but is rather interesting:

The government and the research councils have rejected suggestions that the UK needs a specific body to police research integrity.

The idea was floated by the Commons Science and Technology Committee in its report on peer review, published in July.

As one casts one's eye back to Climategate and the integrity failures by academics and administrators, and the Science and Technology Committee's Climategate inquiries and the voting down of any less-than-mild criticism of scientists by government MPs, and the peer review inquiry that followed that recommended some oversight, and now this...

...well it doesn't look very good does it?

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Reader Comments (39)

Not sure if a bureaucratic solution was ever going to work anyway.

It would have been worse than the apocryphal Committee to Save the Gay Whales - instead a Committee for a Strategic Framework for Saving the Gay Whales.

Oct 26, 2011 at 7:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterJack Hughes

I agree with Jack: it would have just been another official requiring a payoff.

Oct 26, 2011 at 7:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterJon Jermey

The blogosphere does a better job than a bunch of quangocrats could.

Oct 26, 2011 at 8:36 AM | Unregistered CommenterNeil McEvoy

The US has the Office of Research Integrity. They are a real body that police, catch and sanction academics for bad or just very poor behaviour.

I'm surprised that, given we seem to be obsessed with what the US does in every other walk of life, this is not seen as a good idea.

SDCS

Oct 26, 2011 at 8:48 AM | Unregistered Commentersir digby cs

Blimey Bish', you've opened a 'can of worms' here.

On peer review, who could, indeed was able to peer review Einstein's work?

On another level, something which often vexed my limited powers, what if?
What if - when composing, drafting and writing a final year dissertation, even though you present your results, lab work with conclusions and everything properly done ['workings out in the margins' as it were], if you had posited something the senior examiners, the reviewers didn't want to hear, or vehemently disagreed with - would you still achieve the desired [or any] pass mark?

Now that, you can publish and be damned by the world online - I am inclined to agree with Mr. Neil McEvoy's comment [above].

Oct 26, 2011 at 9:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan

"a real body that police, catch and sanction academics for bad or just very poor behaviour"

Has no-one brought a Dr Mann to their attention?

Oct 26, 2011 at 9:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

I agree with Neil above. For the vast majority of scientists there is no need for such a body. If an inquiry is needed it could be handled by ad hoc committees of men of great integrity such as Lord Hutton, Sir Muir Russell, Lord Widgery and the like. Men, whose inquiries have set the gold standard for probity and fairness such as these, abound in the clubs of London at the ready for £50k or so to give the right result to any inquiry. Oh and don't forget Lord (Scouse) Oxburgh, he's best if you want the inquiry to be over before it's started and will always plays a "blinder".

No, I don't believe science as a whole needs it, because if there is any chicanery it's usual harmless to the people generally. We could make a law making it a criminal offence to fabricate, or otherwise manipulate scientific data in a published paper, but as it looks as though the scientific and political establishment approve and sympathise with scientists caught in such an act it is highly unlikely it will get through parliament at least for a generation.

Oct 26, 2011 at 9:47 AM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

Actually I do not think the idea of a government body policing scientists is a good one. Denmark has such an organisation and several years ago it investigated charges of scientific dishonesty against Bjorn Lomborg after the publication of his book The sceptical environmentalist. Lomborg was found guilty of some of the charges against him but eventually the verdict was overturned by the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. You can read about the controversy in the Wikipedia article about Lomborg.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bjørn_Lomborg

Although some CAGW sceptics might like the idea of an official British body to investigate the activities of climate scientists who try to "hide the decline" or "get rid of the Medieval Warm Period" it is far more likely that any such body would be stuffed full of politically correct types who would instead spend their time investigating the claims of any scientist who dared to challenge the consensus and if they discovered any flaws in his/her work then that scientist would be found guilty.

I am sure that if you asked the Inquisition in Galelio's time whether or not it was investigating scientific dishonesty it would have replied "yes, that is exactly what we are doing."

Oct 26, 2011 at 9:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterRoy

We do not need another quango, all that is needed is a set of rules where code, data and method are disclosed in all detail to enable replication.

Oct 26, 2011 at 9:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Whale

In August, I sent the following to the Committee on Publication Ethics.

I have a question about the prevalence of non-medical research fraud in the UK, which I hoped you would be able to shed some light on. Have there been any confirmed cases within the past quarter century?--or within the past half century?

COPE has twice written back to me, but say, “we do not have any statistics on this and I cannot think of site where you could easily find this information”. As far as I can tell, there have been zero confirmed cases in half a century.

There are tens of thousands of non-medical scientists in the UK. Consider much smaller groups of respected people—for example, members of parliament, Catholic priests, police detectives: frauds, or worse, do occur. The official record for scientists is not credible.

The article in THE suggests that each university should be responsible for investigating allegations against its professors. Expecting universities to investigate themselves, though, is effectively expecting them to self-harm, because a university’s reputation is substantially founded upon the reputations of its professors.

In a matter unrelated to global warming, I filed an allegation of academic fraud against a researcher at the University of Reading. The university refused to investigate. They said that they have no procedures for investigating such allegations, because their professors always acted with integrity.

Oct 26, 2011 at 9:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterDouglas J. Keenan

"their professors always acted with integrity"

I seem to recall a similar line from the Vatican until it was overwhelmed with evidence. I suspect the same will be true of CAGW, whatever it may morph into.

Oct 26, 2011 at 10:19 AM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

Not a surprising conclusion when you reflect that the Government is being advised by "scientists" like Dave King and John Beddington.

Oct 26, 2011 at 11:14 AM | Unregistered Commentermitcheltj

Talking of academic integrity - here's another take on BEST Prof Muller's "reformed sceptic" schtick, which the meeja seem to have swallowed hook, line & sinker:-

http://blogs.dailymail.com/donsurber/archives/45059

Oct 26, 2011 at 12:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterFoxgoose

Agree with the majority of comments here -- such a body would only makes things worse, not improve them. I say that having had experience of government oversight panels in this sort of thing.

Oct 26, 2011 at 12:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnon

I'm not a scientist, but I do understand government bureaucracies from long and bitter experience. Apart from the normal accountability that one expects that universities and other research organisations would demand from their employees, I can't think of any way that an outside supervisory authority, which would inevitably need government funding and authority, could do anything other than gum up the genuine research activity with even more ultimately useless administration and paperwork. While I don't for one minute condone the Team's abuse of the Freedom of Information legislation, I do strongly sympathise with their having to waste so much time on what are to them trivial administrative pursuits. But that's the price people have to pay when they accept money from the public purse. If you don't want government oversight, don't take money from the government. But alternative sponsors will demand a similar if not greater level of accountability or even more in the way of a quid pro quo.

Bureaucracies depend for their survival on increasing their grip on their clientele/customers or whatever the current PC term is. Once they are created, they inevitably grow and are as difficult to kill as any other noxious invasive weed.

If scientists breach the law, or professional ethics, they should be dealt with. But supervisory government bureaucracies are not the way to go about it.

Oct 26, 2011 at 1:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterMique

A policing body that was part of, or had close ties to, the scientific establishment would probably make things worse. My belief is that the policing body should be part of a police force. For example, in the U.S., the body could be a department within the FBI. In the U.K., during the last election, Cameron said that he would institute a national police force (if elected); he has not done that though.

Many scientists will claim that their work is so complicated, only specialists within the field can police it. For perhaps 10–15% of cases, they will be right. But those cases can be let go. The objective is not to catch all the fraudsters. The objective is to change the current culture of impunity. If even 0.5% of fraudsters received prison sentences, that would probably be enough to change the culture. Scientists are not hardened Mafia criminals.

Oct 26, 2011 at 1:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterDouglas J. Keenan

@ Doug Keenan

There's one fairly famous case, in botany,of all things. I have a book called the Rum Affair, about Professor John Harrison of Newcastle University. He believed that some plant populations in the Hebrides were survivors of the last Ice Age, and set about to "prove" it. He was studying the flora on the island of Rum in particular, and managed to restrict access to the island to other researchers. It transpired in the end that he was growing plants at his home in Newcastle and transferring then to Rum. Not sure of the timeline, haven''t read the book for a couple of years, but it's 20th C. The author is Karl Sabbagh - the final sentence of one of the reviews of the book says "Sabbagh's final chapters consider parallel frauds in other scientific fields, presenting credible explanations for how a few scientists steeped in the codes of their profession perpetrate outright frauds, and how other scientists get taken in." Might be of interest to the good Bishop's readership

Oct 26, 2011 at 1:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterPalantir

In climate science, and in all of the most hotly-defended of modern theories, it is a matter of incompetence, not fraud--and that incompetence is general, not limited to a few individuals (only the incompetent scientists, having read my "Venus: No Greenhouse Effect", fail to understand and accept it, and choose instead to continue believing the consensus greenhouse effect exists--it does not). But you have at least, at last, focused attention where it belongs in your headline here--the incompetence is entrenched among academics, and thus enshrined in their consensus. Only scientists outside of academia--who have been open to, and found, hard evidence disproving the consensus--and communicating directly to the public on matters that strongly impact upon the public, can correct science today. The climate debates are just the latest and strongest example of this now-necessary process. Academic scientists refuse to pursue open scientific inquiry of views critical of their received dogma; peer review is a matter of feudal academic science lords squabbling only with one another, endlessly, and keeping the "riffraff" (fundamentally critical ideas) out; and politicians and lay activists prostitute themselves and the entire system to that great equalizing creed, "the ends justify the means", whether the means are good science or not, truth or not. If unchecked (as it has increasingly been, for over a hundred years), the academic incompetence in modern science MUST lead to the decline of civilization (not just western, but the world).

Oct 26, 2011 at 1:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Dale Huffman

Re research fraud, the amazing Richard Meinertzhagen managed to run rings around ornithology for quite a while. He did the same in nearly every other aspect of his long and busy life as a soldier and in other fields as well.

There is little to admire in his morality, but its a fascinating tale of somebody who very nearly did fool all of the people all of the time. How the heck did he get away with it?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Meinertzhagen

Oct 26, 2011 at 2:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterLatimer Alder

I think creating an inquisition or star chamber to review the work of scientists is a terrible idea. It would confirm what many of us have come to suspect, that there is more religion than science in a lot of what we read.

When Scientist for Truth expressed disagreement with Orbach a few threads ago, i wrote the following:

"Scientist for Truth,
If I understood the issue, i would have agreed with Orbach that providing a more reliable channel for reporting scientific malfeasance to the "relevant authorities" was not a good idea. If anyone is interested, i could go on for a page or two on this subject, but to keep it simple, "relevant authorities" are usually political appointees.

I enjoyed their cognizance as a licensed professional for 35 years. Would you have scientists licensed?

A channel for consideration of outbreaks of scientific malfeasance does exist - the universities - to which complaints might be referred. Recent experience suggests that unless the malfeasor is already in bad odor with the university, nothing will come of this. I agree that this avenue doesn't often go anywhere.

And do understand that I'm considering only scientific malfeasance not misappropriation of funds or some other deviation which might be susceptible to criminal prosecution.

The rise off blogs as forums for analysis of scientific papers certainly offers plenty of opportunity to make the things you seem to be worried about public even though they lack any form of the punishment you might be looking for. Although ridicule isn't too bad.

If you get a chance, you might have at Eric Larsen's "In the Garden of Beasts" for what happens when a system for reporting malfeasance to relevant authorities is first instituted.

Finally, I apologize if I've misunderstood your point. i take it that you are a practicing scientist and must say I'm astonished that you would be in favor of creating a star chamber for your craft."

I am astounded that Doug Keenan would think any good could come from assigning the FBI to monitor the efficacy of science in the US. Special Agents (they have no non-special agents) are drawn from the ranks of law and accounting graduates, not scientists, not an encouraging group to be treating this subject.

I am not a scientist, and agree that sloppy and fraudulent work passes for "science" but then it always has. If any one really wants a new inquisition, just say so here, and I'll go on at greater length on what a truly stupid ideas it is.

Oct 26, 2011 at 3:29 PM | Unregistered Commenterj ferguson

"Scientists are not hardened Mafia criminals."

Ordinary people aren't Mafia criminals, but a proportion of them are. The climategate crowd will feel like Mafia bosses, untouchable, the politicians paid off, and instead of coming out and saying, "Well perhaps we have gone a little far in pursuing our objectives," (the destruction of western industrialised society) the have indulged in omerta, and kept schtumn.

Those emails were a new low in science ethics, but they, the Team, were protected by the establishment. So I guess they feel pretty good about their chances of continuing their refusal to show data and working for published papers, safe in the knowledge that if the ICO ever does put pressure on them, their friends in the establishment will lean on him.

Oct 26, 2011 at 3:56 PM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

What to do about research fraud. It's a difficult question and I don't have a clue what is the right answer.

On the one hand, I have no doubt that research fraud does sometimes occur and I think it's wrong for it to be immune from investigation, and sanctions, if proved.

On the other hand, investigators researching an unpopular (or a taboo) subject or investigators using an unconventional approach should not have to risk persecution.

The latter seems to me a worse danger than the former.

Oct 26, 2011 at 4:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterMartin A

Neil McEvoy

The blogosphere does a better job than a bunch of quangocrats could.

I think this summarizes it all about as succulently as can be reasonably done. Judging by what I have seen, the last thing I want is a bunch of politicians deciding questions of ethics. We have seen that they are totally incapable of doing it countless times with regard to Climategate alone.

On the other hand, the blogosphere, including BH, has clearly held many miscreants feet to the fire.

Oct 26, 2011 at 4:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Pablo de la Sierra

Bravo don Pablo,
"succulently" is just wonderful, an application of the word i will use to the end of my particular days. 'Can't thank you enough.

Oct 26, 2011 at 4:14 PM | Unregistered Commenterj ferguson

Adding oversight of climate science would be unnecessary if the FOI (and related environmental info laws) were opened up and strictly held in favor of full transparency.

That would make researchers think thrice before trying any malfeasance, because they would have very high probability of being exposed.

Let's put our energy on freeing the info, not on an additional oversight bureaucracy which I agree would be ineffective.

John

Oct 26, 2011 at 4:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Whitman

Seems to me that different fields have different 'norms' with respect to dealing with cheating. Schoen in physics went from awards to disgrace in a short period of time: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sch%C3%B6n_scandal. I wonder what would have happened if Schoen had plumped for climatology as his calling?!

Oct 26, 2011 at 4:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterZT

For another interesting case of research fraud see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_William_Heslop_Harrison

Oct 26, 2011 at 4:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Jones

Traditionally most research-publishing-frauds have been discovered in medicine, for the obvious reasons that scrutiny is greater because of potentially life threatening consequences, and temptation is greater becasue of the big bucks involved if you come up with a wonder drug. However, over the last 30-40 years, for economic reasons, many research based non medical companies have closed/reduced their own research capacity and sub contracted to universities; add into that the general expansion in 'technology' and the development of complex applied science; add into that the expansion of universities and altogether you get a picture of many people outside of medicine now doing research with commercial implications: enter fraud, like the Schoen case quoted above. Same applies when the research has wider policy implications. What has not yet happened in applied science is the degree of scrutiny which is common in medicine, which makes frauds more likely to be caught, and along with being caught goes instant and complete condemnation: no letting off, brushing it under the carpet. OK Schoen got it in the neck but I suspect he was pretty much an exception. The common standards of medical publishing would lead to an author refusing to hand over data, simply discovering that no-one, but no-one, of any repute at all, would be prepared to publish his work. Why hasn't non-medical publishinig adopted the more rigorous standards of medical publishing? Probably because so far it hasn't really occurred to anyone that its necessary. Perhaps its time to re-think that position, if the research involved has any wider implications than being of interest for its own sake.

Oct 26, 2011 at 5:33 PM | Unregistered Commenterbill

j ferguson

For some reason I always think of a quango as some sort of exotic tropical fruit even though I realize that the reality is closer to guano.

Oct 26, 2011 at 5:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Pablo de la Sierra

"a specific body to police research integrity."

How do they define research inegrity anyway? Does disagreeing with climate policy qualify as bad research?

Wow, this idea smells rotton already.

Oct 26, 2011 at 8:05 PM | Unregistered Commenterklem

@ Athelstan

Einstein was published and eventually accepted because his ideas made predictions that were verified by observation.

The value of peer review was to establish not whether something was right but whether it was fit for publication, which green activists have corrupted into a procedure to censor science they don't like.

Oct 26, 2011 at 8:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterJustice4Rinka

@ Justice4Rinka,

Indeed and well said.

Oct 26, 2011 at 9:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan

It seems that the problem isn't the publishing of good and bad papers, but the media portrayal of the research and conclusions.

It is the first impressions hit, that the research paper makes that is most objectionable I suspect, not the research or paper itself.

Oct 26, 2011 at 10:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterGreg Cavanagh

Justice4Rinka

Einstein was published and eventually accepted because his ideas made predictions that were verified by observation.

Absolutely correct. A theory predicts. And Einstein came up with a real dozy. His General Relativity theory predicted that the sun's gravitational field would bend light coming around it (gravitational lensing) and sure enough, there it was.

I would be happy if the AGW crowd could predict next winter's weather. The computer models they are waving around are not predictive, they are descriptive, and basically useless.

Oct 27, 2011 at 3:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Pablo de la Sierra

@Oct 27, 2011 at 3:28 AM | Don Pablo de la Sierra

"I would be happy if the AGW crowd could predict next winter's weather. The computer models they are waving around are not predictive, they are descriptive, and basically useless."

Day after tomorrow would be a start.

Oct 27, 2011 at 7:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Brumby

Academic corruption of another kind:

University of Wales abolished after visa scandal

Oct 27, 2011 at 8:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin A

"a specific body to police research integrity"

Well Bish, if you think that in practise any such body, stuffed to the rafters with the great and good, would do anything other than shut down opposition to the orthodoxy, you haven't been listening very well to what you yourself have been saying.

We've already got far too many similar bodies. Science Media Centre, anyone?

Oct 27, 2011 at 4:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterDavid C

BH,
I can hardly imagine anything more likely to tend toward anathema than additional regulation in the heart of a true libertarian. Do you suppose you could share with us what you had in mind, or clarify your note above so that it more clearly expresses your views on this subject?

Oct 27, 2011 at 4:38 PM | Unregistered Commenterj ferguson

Well of course when I'm running the country there won't be any state-funded science...

Oct 27, 2011 at 5:05 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

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