Friday, June 9, 2017

How not to behave

One of the (unintended) collateral consequences of the hysteria over scientific malpractice is that it becomes a way for the powerful to screw the less powerful. We are, I suspect, witnessing an example of this in the recent firing of Allen Braun by the NIDCD (part of the NIH) on the grounds of scientific misconduct. The more we see of this case, the more it smells, and a very stinky smell at that.

The Washington Post (WP) has a recent article on this (here). It goes over the basic claims. Braun is accused of fraud and the NIH moves to fire him AND prevents anyone from using or publishing any of the data that his research has generated. If indeed the work were fraudulent one might cheer. Finally an organization taking its responsibilities seriously. But cheering in this case would be premature. Why? Because nobody understands what reasons the NIH could possibly have for embargoing the data given that there is no indication that it is any way fraudulent (or even wrong). And, of course, the NIH will not comment on why it has made the ruinous decision that it has made. And why not? Because then it might actually have to defend itself and its decisions and why should an organization and the poohbahs that run it be held hostage by mere scientific integrity?

I know that this sounds harsh, but the WP piece quotes several people that I respect and their words suggest that the NIH has  acted very badly. Let me review what they say for a moment and then get back to the larger significance of what happened.

First, I know Allen a bit. He is by all outward appearances a very decent person and an excellent cog-neuro scientist. My amateur impression is seconded by my more knowledgable colleagues. Nan Ratner (in HESP at UMD) and David Poeppel are quoted in the WP piece as being unable to comprehend why the Braun data has been embargoed. Here's David P on the NIH behavior:

The penalty is “absolutely bizarre,” said David Poeppel, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University who has followed the controversy in his field. “It’s actually unheard of. It’s also unclear who’s being served by that. Certainly not the taxpayer.”

The NIH has not presented any evidence of scientific misconduct (i.e. plagiarized or fabricated data) and from all appearances the problems with Braun's conduct are nugatory (perhaps some bad bookkeeping that Braun himself reported to the NIH).  Maybe appearances are misleading, but the NIH won't say anything about the case. They will say that their decision is irreversible and that we should trust them, but they do not feel the need to defend their actions when pressed. It's always interesting to see science and scientists hide behind authority when power and money are at issue. Evidence and argument are good for those doing science and the authorities insist on integrity on these matter, but apparently similar standards are superfluous for those running science.

Things are actually worse than this. As WP indicates, it may well be that Braun and the many students that worked with him are being sacrificed for the sake of science politics (i.e. the suggested fraud is all a cover)

Many people say the harsh punishment stems, instead, from a long-standing conflict at the institute, whose leadership has forced numerous scientists like Braun to leave in recent years.
Looks like the NIH wants some fresh blood and to make way for them it needs to get rid of older scientists and it seems that accusations of fraud are being deployed to this end. I will get back to this in a moment.

Moreover, there is every reason to think that the NIH is acting in bad faith. David P says something that implies that NIH is not to be trusted. The quote:

In 2013, outside experts were brought in to evaluate Braun’s work, a periodic review that all researchers undergo. The panel, known as a Board of Scientific Counselors, gave Braun an outstanding review — a score of 2 on a descending scale of 1 to 9 — and recommended he receive an additional staffer. 
Instead, the final report was changed by NIDCD (My emphasis NH)and Braun’s resources were slashed, according to Poeppel, one of the experts who conducted the review.
“We’re more than a little bit annoyed to do the work and then be summarized as saying something completely different,” he said in an interview. “When you give someone a score of 2, it’s incompatible with saying ‘and your research program should be cut.’ It’s just not logical. Honestly, don’t waste my time.”
So, the NIH asks a panel for an evaluation and then when the right answer fails to materialize it changes the report to get the desired end.  And when asked to defend itself it stays mum simply reiterating that the charges are serious yada yada yada.

It sure smells like the petty politics of big science. And it is possible that the high priests of scientific purity have abetted the problem. The hysteria over fraud has given bureaucrats a big club: the fraud club! Yell it and watch everyone scatter. Who after all wants to defend fraud?  But, calling fraud and misconduct is very serious. And calling fraud is not the same as committing it. But calling it repeatedly insensitizes us to the accusation.  I hate to think that the defenders of scientific probity have made it easier to screw the little guy. But I fear they have.

The NIH needs to explain what it is doing. And cog-neuro types need to keep making a stink about this until the NIH either satisfactorily explains its actions or apologizes profusely and makes amends.


  1. Where's the hysteria over fraud? I've seen concern about fraud, and I've seen a lot more concern about methodological and statistical malpractice. Unfortunately, concern about both has been appropriate all too often, since there have been some high profile cases of actual fraud, and methodological and statistical malpractice is distressingly widespread.

    It seems like a rather strenuous stretch to pin any responsibility for what the NIH is doing here on people who are vocally concerned about scientific fraud.

    1. The shift to concern over stat malpractice is newish. The first round was over fraud. It took lots of work to refocus the discussion on the more serious stuff, i.e. misunderstanding of stats and misapplication of the technology. So, we started with the hysteria and over on to more serious concerns. My hunch is that the widespread worry over fraud, which IMO was always rather minor, has desensitized us to this (the scientific analogue of voter fraud) and has allowed it to be used by the powers that be.