Today the University of Düsseldorf in Germany has revoked the doctorate of the German Federal Minister of Education and Research, Annette Schavan, following accusations of plagiarism. She denies the accusations and has announced to continue the fight for her degree in court. This is the second case in two years of a German federal minister losing their doctorate based on accusations of plagiarism, the other being Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the former Minister of Defence.
I don’t want to comment on these specific cases, but focus on the broader issues here. To me these cases are a reminder that in some countries (such as Germany…) doctorate degrees mean far too much, and in some cases are sought after also because they give considerable social recognition. They are used to advance careers in completely unrelated careers, and in this way create entrance barriers based on unnecessary criteria. This is very wrong. [...]
Should scientific journals publish high-risk scientific research that could in the wrong hands be disastrous for us all? Although it might be sensible to keep certain results secret for a while, I argue that eventually it does not make sense to withhold results in the long-term.
What is this all about? Yesterday saw the publication in Nature of the controversial mutant bird flu paper. Bird flu (H5N1) is highly lethal, more than 50% of those known to be infected have died from it, although such figures need to be treated with caution. There might be plenty of more benign cases that went undetected so this is more of an upper limit. Still, this is scary. The good news – so far at least – is that H5N1 in the wild doesn’t spread easily between humans and unlike other forms of flu does require physical contact.
Researchers in the US/Japan and separately in the Netherlands have now studied whether H5N1 can mutate to become highly contagious, which would be a real nightmare scenario: a lethal virus that transmits easily. And as these two papers show, using ferrets this requires only a few genetic mutations. What at least the US/Japanese group has done (the other paper has not been published yet, see below), is to use genetic variants from the highly contagious swine flu virus (H1N1) to modify the H5N1 virus accordingly. These genetic modifications, however, have not been successful on their own. It is interesting what happened then: after only two further rounds of infections of ferrets the virus mutated by itself to become highly contagious! Ed Yong has more details of this on his blog. But I like to emphasize that the contagious H5N1 variant as published now appears much less lethal than the original virus.
The publication of both papers has been withheld for months out of fear such knowledge could be used by terrorists or other mad individuals to create a deadly pandemic. Given also a reversal of opinion from a US biosecurity board, the US/Japan paper has now appeared in Nature, and the Dutch paper is expected to appear in Science shortly. Eventually, the decision was in favour of publication, because knowledge of the mutations and their effect on the biology of the virus are so crucial to combat this disease and to possibly develop vaccines. It is not terrorists we need to be afraid of, such mutations can easily happen in nature any moment. In an interview with the BBC, Nature‘s Editor-in-Chief Philip Campbell further rationalises the decision to publish.
Other than not publishing such research at all, two further options were debated: redacting the papers, or to make them available to selected trustworthy scientists only. In an editorial, Nature has now declined such possibilities out of principle and announced this important publishing policy: [...]
Why is it that we do science? The answer most scientists may provide to this question is that their curiosity that drove them towards a career in science. The urge to learn and to discover. For most, this curiosity and passion for science is so strong that they take into account long hours and salaries that are lower than those in other professions. But such passion does of course not mean that there cannot be a quantitative study of the way science works, and of those doing science. Indeed, this is what Paula Stephan from Georgia State University undertakes in her book, How Economics Shapes Science. We can understand a lot by applying economic theory to understand the way we do science. This is not only important to reach a better way of doing science, but it might also lead to a better appreciation of the benefits that come from doing science. How well public funds are spent, and how important science is for all of us. The returns on investment, to use an economic term.
One of the first question the book addresses is of course to understand why are people doing research? What drives them in addition to the obvious curiosity? What’s the economic currency that makes a career in science lucrative? Money of course, let’s face it, is one reason. Some scientists really do get rich from all the startups and patent revenues – and Stephan provides good examples. But of course, that’s just one aspect. A stronger driver perhaps are fame and recognition. Making an important discovery can create a historic legacy that is unrivalled in comparison to other professions. We know the names of famous scientists even after centuries but not nearly as well those of successful business men.
The points that Stephan make here are all interesting and plausible. Indeed, my impression is that economics already knows a lot about the people doing science. The salaries of scientists, the economic costs of doing a PhD (basically, in most cases you lose out financially). International migration patterns. The increasing number of people studying science, and consequently the fact that fewer and fewer of the scientists we train have a long-term perspective in academia. Academia no longer educates mainly for itself, but for others. There is a lot of data on that and the people working in science, and this book gives a great summary. [...]
I finally had the chance to read Michael Nielsen‘s book ‘Reinventing discovery‘ - a must read for anyone interested in scientific discovery. Why? Well, because the closed, individual way in which we organize science today in many ways is hampering progress and may eventually become a thing of the past.
If you are in science, why did you chose a scientific career in the first place? For me, the dream was to make scientific discoveries, to find out about the laws of nature. Being part of a scientific community that works together to achieve common goals. I was fascinated by the scientific discourse, and historical debates. The debate whether light is a wave or a particle. The scientific arguments between the pioneers of quantum mechanics. The huge collaborative efforts at the particle physics laboratory CERN. But what I never imagined myself doing was to sit alone in a room thinking in isolation. The philosopher Kant might have been great at this, but these days most scientists wouldn’t get far in isolation. That’s because increasingly science is a collaborative undertaking.
It is therefore surprising that the way science is still being conducted is for the most part neither open nor transparent. Instead, science today is based on small research groups doing experiments more or less in secret, only emerging from their ‘hiding’ once in a while to publish their latest results, but only to go into stealth mode again afterwards. [...]
The study of materials is one of the major areas of science, with legions of researchers in physics, chemistry and materials science working on this topic. Condensed matter physics is one of the largest research areas in physics. Yet, it makes me often uneasy how the benefits of materials science are promoted. It is all too often about applications, and not about fundamental physics. How materials such as graphene might revolutionize electronics. And how new physical concepts could be used to develop materials for energy applications: solar cells, batteries and so on. In classical materials science it’s often about tougher materials, such as enhanced steels, and less about the fundamental insights they are based on. Of course, applications are an important aspect in the study of materials. But does this mean that too often fundamental insights are neglected in favour of a material’s commercial potential?
Hong Kong’s airport. Photo by “countries in colors” via flickr.
Conferences are a crucial part of science, because they offer scientists a platform to discuss their latest research results, exchange ideas for future research, and initiate scientific collaborations.
The benefit to attending conferences, along with reduced travel costs, has led to an ever increasing amount of travelling, with sometimes crazy implications. At a large international conference in Singapore earlier this year I met a European researcher who flew in for one day only. And so did a colleague of his from Japan. Another researcher once told me he travels to 27 meetings a year, which is perhaps not even that unusual. Such trips may not be limited to conferences, administrative trips can be even more frequent. Some Chinese professors fly from the provinces to Beijing for grant reviews and other administrative business about every two weeks, if not more often. I suppose it is the same elsewhere, although Japanese and European researchers have the advantage that in most cases they can use trains.
Of course, these are just personal anecdotes. So let’s consider the travelling involved for a larger international conference attended by about 5,000 researchers, as they exist for pretty much all major research fields. Let’s further assume that on average the participants live about 2,500 kilometres (1,500 miles) away from the conference. That’s 25 million kilometres flown in total. An airplane uses about 3 litres of fuel to fly a passenger for 100 kilometres. This means that 750,000 litres of fuel (200,000 US gallons) will be consumed to fly researchers to the conference alone. To move those 750,000 litres around by the way would require about 30 large tank trucks. And in terms of CO2 emissions, well, it’s an estimated 2825 tons. [...]