August 6, 2007

Clean House First

Forrest M. Mims III

Based on many years of doing peer-reviewed science while also writing books and columns about science for nonscientists, I have long been persuaded that scientists will have a far better chance of selling their science if they first clean house.

Virtually every issue of SCIENCE and NATURE carries a news story about the latest scandal, plagiarism or paper retraction? When will this end? The miscreants among us drag all of us down in the eyes of the public.

Why do some scientists give support to cynics by exaggerating the facts and making over-the-top predictions to make their point?

Why do some journals and even entire fields of science tolerate overt conflicts of interest while others do not require full disclosure of data and the algorithms used in some models?

Why do many journals charge enormous fees (e.g., $30) for a copy of a paper that was sponsored by taxpayers?

When will every science degree include basic courses in cultural history, the history of science, government, writing, ethics and a general review of all the major fields of science?

It is also worth considering that when some taxpayer-supported scientists disregard or even ridicule the cultural and religious views of the taxpayers who pay their salaries, benefits and overhead, they are not doing science a favor. Yes, they have the right, and it might even make them feel good, but the cost is bad public relations.

Scientists will be far better able to reverse the increasing cynicism among nonscientists when they polish their image by addressing these and other serious issues. I propose that a conference be convened or a panel be designated to review the issues and produce a formal report on how science can address and resolve these issues. The conference or panel should include educators, auditors, former legislators, ethicists, attorneys, citizen scientists, science journalists, journal editors, grad students, post docs, mid-career scientists and senior scientists.

When scientists clean house and are ready to promote their science, there is no better advice than that offered by Richard Feynman in his 1974 commencement address at Caltech: "I would like to add something that's not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you're talking as a scientist."

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