Thursday, March 14, 2013

Funded Research Misery (and thoughts on the value of humanities methods of analysis)

[Okay, let me give this a shot.]  This article (on questions raised about an article published in Nature, and the suicide of one scientist involved, and firing of another) made me think about the conversation Cal began a few days ago, which ended up touching on a number of things, including the relative value (by various measures) of humanities vs. science methods of inquiry/analysis (the social sciences got sort of left out, I think, or maybe we were really talking about quantitative vs. qualitative methods).

One thought: I'm really glad no one is sending me emails like the one from an NIH administrator quoted in the article:
A few years later, another deadline was looming, and Elise Feingold, an NIH administrator, wanted to know what the lab had accomplished.
“I do need some kind of progress report on what you have been doing the past two years . . . and what you think you can accomplish with these funds,” she wrote to Boeke.
I do get indirectly accused of wasting taxpayer money by not teaching larger classes now and then, but the pressure is never quite this direct.  As a taxpayer myself, I'd far rather "waste" money on inconclusive or negative results (which may be part of a necessary process of elimination) than have researchers pressured in this way.
Another thought: as somebody else (sorry; I can't remember who) remarked here recently, I'm really glad humanists don't have to work in teams.  It seems likely that there was at least one toxic personality (and perhaps more) in the mix here, or perhaps there was just a really bad mix of personalities (I'd think that getting a good mix would be tricky, since you'd want some more cautious, detail-oriented people, and some more daring, big-picture thinkers, but not people so far on the end of either scale that they'd drive the project into the ditch, and/or each other crazy).

Finally, in part because of the recent conversation here, I found myself watching how I read the article. It tells a complicated story, with players located on at least two continents, and only a few of those players were willing to talk to the reporter. Given those facts (and the fact that one key player is dead), it's necessarily also an incomplete story.  Under the circumstances, I think the author did a good job of telling the story as evenhandedly as possible, but I, at least, come away leaning toward believing Yuan's account, if only because it's the most complete one we get.  But at least I'm aware of that bias, and have some idea of what additional information, and from what sources, might lead me to revise my thinking.   That's the kind of reading I try to teach my students (who, if they think about these issues at all, usually want to apply their critical-reading skills toward finding an "unbiased" account, rather than toward recognizing and analyzing the role of bias/point of view in all narratives).  That's a worthwhile skill, I think.  (It's also interesting to see the wide variety of narratives, about everything from the scientific method to cultural differences to the pharmaceutical industry that show up in the comment thread. Humanists of several different stripes could have a field day analyzing the material down there).

And a final source of misery: this article turns out to belong to the "Business" section of the online post (not, say, Health & Science, where I expected to find it).

[Hmm. . .I think I may have gone a bit overboard on the commentary.  Quelle Surprise.  It may have turned out to be an inadvertent self-parody, but at least it's not an uncontextualized linked article. Have at it below, but be kind, huh?  If nothing else, it seems to me that this article demonstrates that there's plenty of misery to go around.]


  1. Thanks Cassandra, interesting article. Yuan did the data analysis for the lab, so his questions should have been taken more seriously (by Boeke, the lab director) from the outset. I can see how YYLin, newly hired by Taiwan probably in part due to the Nature paper, may have found it impossible to deal with the inevitability of retracting the results at least in part.

    Biomedical research involves (requires) a lot of money, and labs are under pressure to produce something not merely good, but spectacular, once in a while. Incentives to cut corners on integrity abound. I imagine what's happening now is that Boeke's lab is working (with the journal) on a partial retraction that won't make them look too bad, along the lines that Yuan's critique is "technical" (which maybe it is.) I suppose Yuan's career in the field is toast at this point anyway.

    This kind of thing is rare in pure mathematics, luckily. There are no huge financial rewards for individual papers, and we don't need labs, grad students or even grants (though it helps with travel, summer salaries and such.) If a paper/claim doesn't pass the "smell test", the mistake is quickly found (usually) and it's not published. Sometimes technical mistakes in a proof are found years later, and fixed; it is rare for a major result to turn out to be false. We're all very conservative (scientifically); "boring" is good, since it is probably correct.

    The NIH program manager was just doing her job: if a lab wants to have its grant renewed (taxpayer money) they're expected to produce new results, and filing reports is part of the deal; the pressure is "fitting and proper" (in the American research funding system, which differs from other countries'). NIH shouldn't have to ask; no report, no grant.

    1. Ah; my impression was that she was not just asking for a report (appropriate indeed), but putting some pressure on them to create publishable results. But maybe I misread (and/or the article implied something that wasn't quite accurate. Maybe the article needed at least an implied villain, and I jumped on the obvious choice?)

  2. We've got to stop it with the ridiculous humanities/sciences infighting. Especially since we all know the real enemy is the education department.

  3. My only reaction to articles like this is, "why doesn't this happen more often?" Maybe people are more trustworthy than I think, or maybe it does happen but it's only caught occasionally.