Science / Engineering / Mathematics

Study offers new evidence that scientists are biased against women

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New study offers evidence that scientists -- men and women alike -- assume female students are less competent and less worthy of pay and mentoring than male students.

Study tracks erosion of conservative confidence in science

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Survey tracks long-term erosion in confidence in research -- and suggests that evolution and social issues aren’t the cause.

Cornell and Technion's win in New York competition reflects desire to grow urban ties

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Cornell's victory in New York City competition, and its intense desire to win, show the importance of urban ties for the future of research universities.

Debate over "overload" pay for professors

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Does it make sense for colleges that can't create new faculty lines to pay current professors more money to teach extra sections?

Essay on ways to prevent scientific misconduct

The most recent case of scientific fraud by Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel recalls the 2010 case against Harvard University of Marc Hauser, a well-respected researcher in human and animal cognition. In both cases, the focus was on access to and irregularities in handling of data. Stapel retained full control of the raw data, never allowing his students or colleagues to have access to data files.  In the case of Hauser, the scientific misconduct investigation found missing data files and unsupported scientific inference at the center of the accusations against him. Outright data fraud by Stapel and sloppy data management and inappropriate data use by Hauser underscore the critical role data transparency plays in preventing scientific misconduct.    

Recent developments at the National Science Foundation (and earlier this decade at the National Institutes of Health) suggest a solution — data-sharing requirements for all grant-funded projects and by all scientific journals. Such a requirement could prevent this type of fraud by quickly opening up research data to scrutiny by a wider community of scientists.

Stapel’s case is an extreme example and more likely possible in disciplines with substantially limited imperatives for data sharing and secondary data use.  The research traditions of psychology suggest that collecting your own data is the only sound scientific practice.  This tradition, less widely shared in other social sciences, encourages researchers to protect data from outsiders.  The potential for abuse is clear.  

According to published reports about Hauser, there were three instances in which the original data used in published articles could not be found. While Hauser repeated two of those experiments and produced data that supported his papers, his poor handling of data cast a significant shadow of uncertainty and suspicion over his work.

Hauser’s behavior is rare, but not unheard of. In 2008, the latest year for which data are available, the Office of Research Integrity at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported 17 closed institutional cases that included data falsification or fabrication. These cases involved research funded by the federal government, and included the manipulation or misinterpretation of research data rather than the violation of scientific ethics or institutional oversight.

In both Hauser and Stapel's cases, graduate students were the first to alert authorities to irregularities.   Rather than relying on other members of a researcher’s lab to come forward (an action that requires a great deal of personal and professional courage,) the new data sharing requirements at NSF and NIH have the potential to introduce long-term cultural changes in the conduct of science that may reduce the likelihood of misconduct based on data fabrication or falsification. The requirements were given teeth at NSF by the inclusion of new data management plans in the scored portion of the grant application.

NIH has since 2003 required all projects requesting more than $500,000 per year to include a data-sharing plan, and the NSF announced in January 2011 that it would require all grant requests to include data management plans. The NSF has an opportunity to reshape scientists' behavior by ensuring that the data-management plans are part of the peer review process and are evaluated for scientific merit.  Peer review is essential for data-management plans for two reasons. First and foremost, it creates an incentive for scientists to actually share data. The NIH initiatives have offered the carrot for data sharing — the NSF provides the stick. The second reason is that the plans will reflect the traditions, rules, and constraints of the relevant scientific fields. 

Past attempts to force scientists to share data have met with substantial resistance because the legislation did not acknowledge the substantial differences in the structure, use, and nature of data across the social, behavioral and natural sciences, and the costs of preparing data. Data sharing legislation has often been code for, "We don’t like your results," or political cover for previously highly controversial issues such as global warming or the health effects of secondhand smoke. The peer review process, on the other hand, forces consistent standards for data sharing, which are now largely absent, and allow scientists to build and judge those standards.  "Witch hunts" disguised as data sharing would disappear.  

The intent of the data sharing initiatives at the NIH and currently at NSF has very little to do with controlling or policing scientific misconduct. These initiatives are meant to both advance science more rapidly and to make the funding of science more efficient. Nevertheless, there is a very real side benefit of explicit data sharing requirements: reducing the incidence of true fraud and the likelihood that data errors would be misinterpreted as fraud.

The requirement to make one’s data available in a timely and accessible manner will change incentives and behavior. First, of course, if the data sets are made available in a timely manner to researchers outside the immediate research team, other scientists can begin to scrutinize and replicate findings immediately. A community of scientists is the best police force one can possibly imagine. Secondly, those who contemplate fraud will be faced with the prospect of having to create and share fraudulent data as well as fraudulent findings.

As scientists, it is often easier for us to imagine where we want to go than how to get there.  Proponents of data sharing are often viewed as naïve scientific idealists, yet it seems an efficient and elegant solution to the many ongoing struggles to maintain the scientific infrastructure and the public’s trust in federally funded research. Every case of scientific fraud, particularly on such controversial issues such as the biological source of morality (which is part of Hauser’s research) or the sources of racial prejudice (in the case of Stapel) allows those suspicious of science and governments’ commitment to funding science to build a case in the public arena. Advances in technology have allowed the scientific community the opportunity to share data in a broad and scientifically valid manner, and in a way that would effectively counter those critics.

NIH and NSF have led the way toward more open access to scientific data.  It is now imperative that other grant funding agencies and scientific journals redouble their own efforts to force data, the raw materials of science, into the light of day well before problems arise. 

Felicia B. LeClere is a principal research scientist in the Public Health Department of NORC at the University of Chicago, where she works as research coordinator on multiple projects, including the National Immunization Survey and the National Children's Study.

STEM Faculty Launch Program

Fri, 09/25/2015 to Sat, 09/26/2015


100 Institute Road
01609 Worcester , Massachusetts
United States

Author discusses his new book on the rise of English as the dominant language of science

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Author discusses his new book on science before and after the dominance of English as a global language.

Review of Michael Corballis, "The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking"

The Buddhist idiom “monkey mind” does not require years of contemplation to understand. It explains itself quickly to anyone who attempts the most basic meditative practice: closing the eyes and concentrating solely on the breath. By the second or third exhalation, your attention will have shifted -- if not to an itch, or the aftertaste of your most recent meal, then to some memory, plan, song lyric, etc., and then to another, until you remember to focus on the flow of the breath.

Whereupon it will all start up again. The human mind, in the Buddha’s words, moves “just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go, only to seize another….” The simile is all the more fitting given that he spent years meditating in the forest. (I take it by implication that the mind also makes shrill noises and scratches itself a lot.)

Twenty-five hundred years and a good deal of laboratory research later, Michael Corballis’s The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking (University of Chicago Press) has little to say about taming, much less transcending, the restless mind. Corballis, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, wants to reconcile us to the mental flux through a review of scientific research on the neurobiology behind ordinary awareness. From his perspective, wandering attention is necessary and even beneficial for humankind, in spite of the disapproval of authority figures for countless generations.

Central to the author’s approach is what he calls “mental time travel” -- meaning, in part, the human ability to remember the past and anticipate the future, but also (more importantly, perhaps) our capacity to shift attention away from immediate experience for considerable periods while focusing on our memories, plans and worries.

This power is a blessing and a curse, and Nietzsche suggested that it gives us reason to envy the beast of the field, which “springs around, eats, rests, digests, jumps up again, and so from morning to night and from day to day, with its likes and dislikes closely tied to the peg of the moment, and thus is neither melancholy nor weary.”

But that’s just human vanity talking. A variety of methods are available to record the flow of blood and bursts of neural activity within the brain -- and some can be used on lab animals as well as hospital patients. Corballis reports on experiments with rats that have learned their way through a maze to a feeding spot. The effort sets off “sharp-wave ripples” among the brain cells dedicated to tracking a rat’s location. But the activity may continue even after the rat is done, “as though the animal is mentally tracing out a trajectory in the maze,” the author says.

Perhaps this is not so surprising, since “for a laboratory rat, being in a maze is probably the most exciting event of the day.” But there’s more:

“These mental perambulations need not correspond to the paths that the rat actually traversed. Sometimes the ripples sweep out in a path that is precisely the reverse of the one the rat actually took. It may be a path corresponding to a section of the maze the rat didn’t even visit, or a shortcut between locations that wasn’t actually traversed. One interpretation is that the ripples function to consolidate the memory for the maze, laying down a memory for it that goes beyond experience, establishing a more extensive cognitive map for future use. But mind wandering and consolidation may be much the same thing. One reason that we daydream -- or even dream at night -- may be to strengthen memories of the past, and allow us, and the rat, to envisage future events.”

On that point, at least, our difference from the humble rodent is one of degree and not of kind: the human brain undertakes (and absorbs information from) a much wider range of activity, but the same part of the brain -- the hippocampus -- serves as the hub for the neural networks that enable “mental time travel.”

What does distinguish us, of course, is language, which among other things enables storytelling and more complex forms of social organization than those possible for even the most sophisticated chimpanzee community. So the human brain finds itself navigating any number of mazes, many of its own creation. Zoning out while someone is speaking, then, is not a solely a function of overburdened powers of attention reaching their limit. The wandering mind is part of a range of phenomena that includes dreaming, fantasy, hallucination and creativity -- all of them products of the brain’s constant obligation to shift between levels of experience and directions of “time travel.”

Corballis makes the point with a range of biological, medical and anthropological references in a casual style that sometimes just barely holds things together. One or two chapters might have been removed without it making much difference, as would the jocular bits about whether the reader is still paying attention. (“Yes,” reads my note in the margin, “because irritation wonderfully concentrates the mind.”)

While interesting on the whole, the book leaves completely unaddressed the question of whether there is any difference between a mind wandering under its own powers, so to speak, and one that’s grown accustomed to constantly increasing bombardment. Where the monkeys used to swing from vine to vine, they now run the risk of colliding in midair, distracted by all the beeps and buzzes coming from their smartphones.

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