Monday, March 05, 2007

Ebert Comments: Scientists Shy From Criticism, Controversy

Patent attorney and blogger Larry Ebert has posted a comment on the scientists and "humiliation" item below in "Stem Cell Snippets." Among other things, he says, "Most scientists avoid controversy like the plague. In a world where a competitor is apt to be the next reviewer of your grant or referee of your paper, you can't go around humiliating those in your field." Even public criticism, something different than humiliation, is not the norm, says Ebert.

A cozy world, indeed, if what Ebert says is 100 percent correct. Undoubtedly even cozier in the relatively tiny world of stem cell research. All more the reason for more public disclosure regarding the interests of those who review the applications for stem cell research grants.

Which brings up a sentiment from Lord Acton, the British historian. He said, "Everything secret degenerates...nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity."

Regarding the quote, our thanks to Peter Singer, a bioethicist at Princeton University, who used it in an essay in New Scientist in October 2006, where we found it.

1 comment:

  1. I feel somewhat obligated to make a few comments.

    #1. I do not claim to be "100%" accurate here. I do believe that MOST scientists (not ALL scientists) avoid controversy like the plague.

    #2. Although I am a patent attorney, I have a Ph.D. (from Stanford) and have reviewed proposals for NSF and papers for Physical Review Letters and the Journal of the American Chemical Society, among others. One story, on a paper I did NOT review, is instructive. After I had entered law school (and my location not generally known in the scientific community), I received a paper to review on behalf of an ACS journal. It was by someone who was working on something I had done as a graduate student, and it reached different conclusions (but was careful not to be critical or humiliating). I pointed out to the editor that I could not review this because I had (an obvious) conflict of interest, and returned the paper. The editor sent it back, saying I was the expert in the field. I sent it back again. Sometimes people are not so lucky, and have their papers trashed (anonymously) by competitors, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not. As I have pointed out before, this is not an unknown issue, and served as a plotline on the Bang! episode of Law & Order around 1995 [wherein a professor trashed a grant proposal of a former student, and then stole the idea for himself.]

    #3. One has to be careful to recognize that one competitor will not always trash the work of another. If there is sufficient money, it is in everyone's interest to approve all the grants, so the field as a whole grows ("all boats rise on a rising tide"). Nevertheless, when one introduces private interests (as with the federal Bayh-Dole Act), one can return to the competitor trashing motif. Noelle v. Lederman is an interesting case here, wherein the real opponents were two private companies; in the stem cell area, one can find a curious case in which ACT and Geron were the true opponents. [see 88 JPTOS 239] This returns us to the issue most likely of greatest concern to californiastemcellreport, wherein a reviewer might have hidden economic interests influencing the outcome of the review. But don't forget that the proposer might also have economic interests, which might even be of the prospective variety.