Issue Date: September 17, 2012
Down And Dirty Science
An alarming rise in scientific journal retractions over the past decade, with the highest retraction index belonging to the New England Journal of Medicine, has been uncovered by two U.S. researchers (Infect. Immun., DOI: 10.1128/IAI.06183-11). A related study mirrored those findings, with an analysis showing that in the early 2000s some 30 retractions occurred annually, but the number climbed steadily to an astounding 400 retractions reported in 2011 (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/478026a).
Taking into account a rise in overall publication totals and better scrutiny to detect fraud and suspect data, leading scientists interviewed by the New York Times (http://nyti.ms/J1cEYS, April 16, 2012) put equal blame for the retraction crisis on scientists’ fierce competition for finite grant resources, creating pressure, desperation, and even financial incentives to succeed at all costs. Indeed, thanks in part to an overabundance of people with doctoral degrees in the sciences (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/472276a), NIH grant funding success rates fell to an all-time low of 18% in 2011 (ScienceInsider, Jan. 20, 2012).
In this climate of fierce competition in science comes “Prize Fight: The Race and the Rivalry to be the First in Science,” by Morton A. Meyers. The author, however, adroitly dispels the notion of an earlier halcyon era of noble and sacrosanct science, where curiosity and the intellectual rewards of innovation superseded ego and financial windfall. Through a series of fascinating case studies and vignettes that touch on some of the most venerable discoveries of our time, Meyers exposes a world of cutthroat competitiveness, questionable credit for ideas, and even nefarious behavior. He deftly explores the themes of how bias impacts publications and rewards in science, the collateral damage when scientific drive outweighs ethical standards, and the nature of the professor-postdoc-graduate student hierarchy.
“The scientist is generally viewed as detached, objective, dispassionate,” writes Meyers in the introduction to his book, even though the reality is quite the opposite. “The scientific enterprise brims over with competition, battles, and injustices,” he declares. Scientists, he continues, are “subject to pride, greed, jealousy and ambition, just like the rest of us.”
Much of the surprise that scientific scandals always generate, and the misconception about the roots of highly unethical behavior, lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of scientists’ natures and the surprising “creative heat” that drives them, according to Meyers. Creativity, he says, tends to be linked more with the humanities, even though scientists and artists share numerous traits of the creative individual, including a struggle with the need for self-expression, total devotion to their craft, and obsession.
Meyers argues that the unfortunate by-product of scientists’ intense creative drive is a dark side to science that many people outside the walls of the ivory tower never see. Most often, it manifests in the form of a lust for recognition, which necessitates establishing priority of invention or publication—an experimentalist’s holy grail. Sir Isaac Newton fought acrimoniously with his contemporaries, including Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz, over precedent in mathematics, optics, and celestial mechanics, often encrypting his calculus formulas in abstruse anagrams, Meyers writes.
The streamlining of the scientific publication process in the latter half of the 19th century—which included regimented submission procedures and a peer review system—did little to quell competition for credit in the academic world, the book continues. Sometimes, credit was a matter of pure chance, as when Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray arrived hours apart at the patent office to file their respective discoveries for the telephone. Other times, the quest for credit was more premeditated and insidious, Meyers writes, citing the behavior of James Watson and Francis Crick, who, Crick wrote in one account, withheld information from Linus Pauling in their no-holds-barred race to characterize DNA structure and then omitted credit for the essential X-ray crystallography contributions of Rosalind Franklin to their work because of their sexist attitudes.
Meyers devotes the last two-thirds of “Prize Fight” to two case studies of misconduct that involved intense battles for credit, each with heroes, villains, cries of injustice, and starkly different takeaway points.
In the first case study, we meet Selman Waksman, a diligent, passionate Russian immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1910 and developed expertise in actinomycetes, soil bacteria that make actinomycin, an antimicrobial compound. Waksman eventually became a professor at Rutgers, where he published more than 400 papers, and was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Early in his research, Waksman isolated actinomycetes and noted that they killed a wide range of organisms in vitro but were far too toxic for clinical use in humans. His mission, then, became the discovery of a gram-negative antibiotic that would kill germs that could not be destroyed with penicillin. These included the microorganisms behind such scourges as typhoid, dysentery, brucellosis, tularemia, bubonic plague, and most important of all, tuberculosis.
Enter hardworking, respectful graduate student Albert Schatz in 1943. Whether through luck, assiduousness, or a combination of both, Schatz quickly screened for and discovered a soil antibiotic that would become the basis for the TB drug streptomycin. Schatz’s contributions in resolving the toxicity problem, however, were minimized by Waksman, Meyers writes, to magnify his own achievements. Waksman, indeed, went on to win a Nobel Prize for his work and used the prize money to establish the Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers. Schatz, who had turned over to Rutgers his rights concerning the streptomycin patent, waged a bitter public and court battle to reclaim credit for the development of streptomycin. But winning his legal battle proved a Pyrrhic victory: Academic doors slammed shut for Schatz because of the perceived betrayal of his mentor, Waksman.
The Schatz-Waksman rift that Meyers recounts raises some interesting questions about rewarding graduate students and postdocs for their work on important discoveries. Many of Schatz’s contemporaries thought he simply got lucky on a routine screen, while Waksman contributed the ideas and principles. But Meyers proposes that even if a student or postdoc supplies brilliant original ideas that bring their labs acclaim, they are nonetheless receiving training and an advanced degree for their work—which, he writes, is reward enough.
In his other case study, Meyers reviews the awarding of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to chemist Paul Lauterbur and physicist Peter Mansfield for their discoveries concerning magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The careful wording of the prize reflects the fact that Lauterbur and Mansfield did not come up with the original idea of applying nuclear magnetic resonance to medical imaging. That distinction is held by physician Raymond Damadian, who realized there was a lag in T1 and T2 relaxation times between the electrons of normal and malignant tissues in rats and published a seminal 1971 paper laying out a case for NMR use in organ imaging (Science,DOI: 10.1126/science.171.3976.1151).
Lauterbur, building on Damadian’s ideas, realized that you could use NMR to produce images by mapping the location of hydrogen nuclei in the body. The machine that he built, which pioneered the capture of magnetic gradients at different angles and NMR signals at each specific orientation, was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark in 2011 by the American Chemical Society. Lauterbur also coauthored a Nature brief that has been called one of the most influential publications of the 21st century (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/242190a0). Nevertheless, Damadian had still beaten Lauterbur both in originating the idea of MRI as well as in building a prototype machine that produced images.
Meyers contends that Damadian’s story is indicative of multiple manifestations of ingrained bias within the scientific community. Damadian is a medical doctor, whose pioneering ideas about chemistry and physics simply weren’t taken seriously by Ph.D. chemists. What’s more, Meyers writes, Damadian has a difficult personality, and he often rubbed his peers and colleagues the wrong way.
Meyers uses the Damadian case to criticize the peer-reviewed funding of science in the U.S. He contends that the process is rife with cronyism and conflicts of interest. Colleagues siding with Lauterbur, Meyers writes, gave him advance notice to submit an NIH grant application for an MRI prototype. The application then received fast-track funding—before Damadian’s grant was ever evaluated.
Meyers’ exploration of the issues of bias in scientific research and the acceptance of new and sometimes far-fetched ideas is the biggest strength of “Prize Fight” as well as its weakness. The author rightfully concludes that a greater awareness of these issues in the scientific community must be followed by establishing a consistency in attribution of authorship, implementing a more equitable and impartial peer review that promotes openness to innovative and paradigm-shifting ideas, and instituting clear criteria for determination of credit and acknowledgment of contributions. Yet, as interesting as his vignettes and case studies are, Meyers’ cursory analysis of the aforementioned issues at the beginning and end of “Prize Fight” makes the reader long for a more consistent in-depth discussion throughout the entire book.
“Prize Fight” is an eye-opening and thought-provoking read, both for researchers working in science and laypeople interested in acquiring a deeper understanding of scientists’ motivations. Hopefully, Meyers’ book can also lead to an open dialogue in science about how to prevent dishonorable tactics and preserve proper credit for future generations of researchers.
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