Monday, January 23, 2006

Research and glory

Not long ago a Norwegian medical resercher, working on oral cancer, was found to have fabricated data published in an article in a prestigeous scientific journal. He had a long list of co-authors, and the Norwegian department of resarch and education are now investigating not just the researcher, but all his co-authors as well. This morning it was on the news that he had confessed to have fabricated data for several more articles. It was his lawyer on the morning news, describing the personal tragedy of this man, a man who received and spent 10 million US$ on research which was, it turned out, plain bad.

The lawyer spoke of the pressure in academia, how publications in certain journals is the measuring staff for your success, not your real achievements, and how important it is to have results which can catch the attention of the research community. He is right, of course: to not have found is not a finding - particularly not as long as what you do not find has been not found already.

If you do what I do, and google cancer research fraud, you will get several articles pointing out how all current cancer research is a fraud. I am not entirely sure of how seriously I should take Chris Gupta, a man propagating do-it-yourself electromedicine, but he refers to some interesting views on the connection between cancer research and environmental issues.

Since 1997, when that last article was published, we have achieved a greater understanding of the connection between the environment and cancer. We are still, however, spending research resources on solving the cancer riddle - because the answer is not accepted from the powers that be. If it was possible to isolate a virus that causes cancer, fighting that virus could become an industry. Fighting pollution, food additives, lifestyle choices, general health ignorance and social gaps does not lead to a marketable product, and so, while it might possibly cause 80% of the cancer problems today, it is a non-issue. And researchers know what they have to deliver, even Norwegian researchers in these days of increasingly grant-driven research:
This point is similarly expressed by Dr. Sydney Singer: "Researchers are like prostitutes. They work for grant money. If there is no money for the projects they are personally interested in, they go where there is money. Their incomes come directly from their grants, not from the universities. And they want to please the granting source to get more grants in the future. Their careers depend on it." (10)

By having a teaching position which includes research, in a field that does not generate the kind of money that the heavier industries does (when did hollywood, fox news or microsoft bother to buy up a Norwegian media researcher?) I feel pretty safe and non-prostituted. But this is the reality of a market-driven research community. Luckily Norway is still fairly innocent, hence we are still surprised when something like this happens, and it makes the morning news. Perhaps somebody will manage to point to some of our more recent changes in the financing and evaluation system of academic achivement, and say something like "hey, can't this system cause even more of this very embarassing situation?"

Let us hope, and dream of free academic thought, while there is still room for anything but black sarcasm.

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