Senate bill hopes to speed up technology licensing process

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Commercialization offices are fighting a Kauffman proposal that would let researchers take potential commercial ideas to any technology transfer partner, not just their home institution.

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.

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.

Tool from Union of Concerned Scientists to report political interference

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Union of Concerned Scientists has launched a tool for federal employees to report political meddling in science and research. It’s the latest way science advocates are responding to what they see as the Trump administration’s anti-science policies.

A play fosters a vitally inclusive environment at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (essay)

“Nobody chooses to be gay,” says Cheryl to her boyfriend in Ann Palmer’s 1987 short play, Why Did You Tell Me?  

The boyfriend, Jack, seeks Cheryl’s consolation after his roommate and best friend comes out to him. Jack has not taken the revelation well. He is hurt, enraged and disgusted.

The play is remarkable in several ways. It was written by an undergraduate at a predominantly engineering college and performed there in 1987. C.P. Snow’s lamentable divide between the humanities and science has, if anything, intensified since his lecture on “Two Cultures” in 1959. Today, many people still believe that the humanities have little to say to engineers and scientists, nor any place in a global economy.

But at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, an original short play festival called New Voices has been running continuously since 1983. Each year, students submit original short plays, which are selected in a blind review process and produced in WPI’s small theatre by a student cast and production team. Ann Palmer’s play was performed in the fifth year of New Voices, and students recently performed it again in The Showcase, a retrospective of student-authored LGBTQ+ themed plays.

From the very beginning, these original plays featured difficult themes of sexual identity and orientation. As Erin A. Cech and Thomas J. Waidzunas point out, engineering culture is not generally a welcoming place for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students or for open discussions about non-normative sexuality. Engineering schools are characterized by heteronormativity, the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm and that any other sexuality either doesn’t or shouldn’t exist. This assumption, often unstated, saturates the environment with damaging results for LGBT students.

Heteronormative culture, Cech and Waidzunas report, “pressures many LGB[T] engineering students into both academic and social isolation.” To persist in college, they must either keep their private lives secret or face the emotional challenge of being LGBT in an environment that does not welcome them -- a burden not shared by straight students. This additional “emotional work,” Cech and Waidzunas have found, forces LGBT students to “daily negotiate public knowledge of their personal lives in ways that their heterosexual peers do not.”

In particular, Cech and Waidzunas observe that the technical/social divide within engineering culture -- which dismisses the “personal” as irrelevant to the technical orientation of engineering --  “may marginalize LGB students and lead them to feel as though discussions of their particular circumstances are silenced.”

These are the conditions that Cech and Waidzunas observed in 2011; one can only imagine the scene in 1987, six years before President Bill Clinton’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. And yet, the staging of Ann Palmer’s Why Did You Tell Me? in 1987 invited audiences to explore these questions for themselves and as a community. In the second scene of the play, Cheryl tries to convince her boyfriend that his friend, Dave, was brave to confide in him about being gay:

“Don’t you think he knew how you’d react?” she asks him. “All those times you guys made fun of homosexuals and gagged and showed your disgust, Dave was there.

“Don’t you think it was hard for him to just stand there and listen while you cut down the way he had to live? Don’t you think it was hard for him to throw in the occasional insult so you guys wouldn’t get suspicious?

In asking Jack to imagine what life has been like for his closeted friend, Cheryl invokes without naming (because the term had not yet been coined) the concept of heteronormativity, or what Adrienne Rich in 1980 called “compulsory heterosexuality.” What burdens do closeted gays carry in a culture that assumes that everyone is straight?

When Cheryl asks her boyfriend to imagine what it has been like for his roommate to accept his sexual identity in an inhospitable environment, she is asking her audience to do the same:

“Just do it. Think about it. You try to hide the feelings, because you don’t want to believe it, but you can’t. All of your friends are talking about girls and you wish that you could, too. Falling in love is supposed to be the most wonderful feeling there is, but if you do it, you just feel like you’re doing something wrong. Or that everybody else will think you’re doing something wrong.”

Susan Vick, the theatre professor who inaugurated New Voices and still oversees the festival 35 years later, remembers “sitting in the audience on opening night and kind of holding my breath  -- but the actors, staff and audience just got it and applauded with gusto as they do when they really like a piece.”

The author, Ann Palmer Anderson, also vividly remembers the play, which she wrote as an exploration of her own feelings:

“I was a junior and had met this guy at a party. We met up again for a date a couple of weeks later. We didn’t go anywhere though. He said he was too upset to be fun that night because his best friend had just come out to him by hitting on him…. So essentially he was Jack and I was Cheryl. I tried to be sympathetic and help him see his friend’s side, but we didn’t know each other very well and his reaction was so negative and visceral. I never saw him again after that night.

“I just had to get my feelings down about it and the play was the result. I was proud of “Why Did You Tell Me?” while it was being performed because the actors and director accomplished what I wanted: a dialog about homosexuality and coming out with all sides represented and compassion winning out. But the aftermath was even more amazing. I had so many people seek me out. People I didn’t know -- they would ask me if I was Ann Palmer and then shake my hand or just say “Thank You.” It was extremely humbling because I wasn’t trying to be some sort of crusader, I just had a story to tell.”

When these plays were performed in April, a sold-out crowd received them warmly. When we queried the audience in an online, anonymous post-show survey, the 80 respondents described the role of WPI’s drama program in fostering an inclusive space. One respondent noted that “the experience of working very closely with others for a shared goal fosters closeness and trust” among performance groups, while another focused on the audience experience of “thinking about [sexuality] in a small, personal space, without judgment.”

As the national dialogue over education and public funding continues to pit the humanities and arts against STEM fields, we ought to take note of powerful examples like Ann Palmer, a successful engineering student whose experiences with humanistic study helped her to understand her place in the world, articulate her values, and open a conversation on the campus about fairness, empathy and social change. Claims that the arts and humanities don’t advance our national interests or prepare the nation’s workforce are both wrong and beside the point -- which is that human beings, the workforce, and civil society desperately need people who understand both cognitive domains.

Kristin Boudreau is Paris Fletcher Distinguished Professor of Humanities and chair of the department of humanities and arts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.


Image Caption: 
This Year's The Showcase Cast and Crew at Worcester Polytechnic Institute
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