No matter what field or industry you work in, I’m sure you’re aware of a few less than stellar individuals who end up giving everyone a bad name. Maybe a rude cashier at Target ruined the shopping chain for you, or an overcooked steak at Outback turned you off of steakhouses for awhile. While you recognize that sometimes people are rude because of personal issues, and you’re well aware of easy it is to mess up a steak, how do you handle a mistake that you knew nothing about? How could you even recognize it?
Science is no different than the shopping and restaurant industry in that there are unfortunately a few bad apples. You may of heard of Dong-Pyou Han, an Iowa State University laboratory manager who confessed to spiking samples of rabbit blood with human antibodies to make an experimental HIV vaccine appear to have great promise, or Andrew Wakefield, who falsified the results of his studies on vaccines as a cause of autism. What is different about science, though, is that we, the public, know a lot less about this kind of work than we do most other fields. Very few of us would know what to even look for when measuring the effectiveness of a vaccine, and we rely on studies exactly like Wakefield’s to tell us if we should actually be worried about mediation or not.
Last weekend brought to light another ethical lapse in the science world. Wei-Hock Soon, known as Willie, is a scientist associated with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who is best known for his claims that variations in the sun’s energy can largely explain global warming. This goes against the more widely accepted belief (97% of scientists) that humans play a large role in global warming.
The New York Times published an article about Soon’s involvement with Harvard, past research points and most importantly, his funding. He has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work. Soon also described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.
As another blogger mentioned that it’s important to understand that accepting funding from a corporation for research is totally acceptable. Good research is expensive, and this is fairly common practice, but what isn’t acceptable, is not disclosing this possible conflict of interest.
The best thing to do now is to make sure we thoroughly investigate Soon. Harvard, Smithsonian and the numerous journals he published through need to take immediate and harsh action. In one of my first blog posts, I talked about West Virginia’s attempt at cutting global warming from the science education standards. How can we expect a state held in economic turmoil over global warming to willingly teach it until we can get the science community’s full support?
Like I said before, science is tricky. I’m not an astrophysicist or a climate scientist, and you probably aren’t either. We MUST demand clear and constant communication with the science community, and scientists, you have to understand why we need this. If we ever hope to make the big changes we’re going to need to make in the next few years, we’re going to require lots of honest and thorough communication.