Saturday, October 21, 2006

There, but for the grace of god, ...

This week's issue of the NYT Magazine has a long story on a case of scientific fraud from the University of Vermont, where a prominent researcher was sentenced to a year and a day in jail (as well as being banned from ever getting public funding) for falsifying results in dietary studies.

It seems unnecessary, (and too easy) to blame the researcher involved; the story is damning enough. What struck me though, reading though the description of how events transpired, was how banal, how mundane the fraud was, and how utterly common the driving forces were; the usual toxic mix of a desire for fame, the pressure to get money, how universities encourage people to bring in grants.
Steven Heymsfield, an obesity researcher at Merck Pharmaceuticals in New Jersey, [...] added that Poehlman’s success owed more to his business sense and charisma than to his aptitude as a scientist.

“In effect, he was a successful entrepreneur and not a brilliant thinker with revolutionary ideas,” Heymsfield wrote me via e-mail. “But deans love people who bring in money and recognition to universities, so there is Eric.”



  1. Surely you are being ironic with the title of this post? 

    Posted by Kurt

  2. No, actually I'm not. What I was trying to convey that the mix of temptations that led one researcher down this sorry path are present in all academic endeavours, and rather than sit in judgement while thinking, "I'd never do this", we should recognize how easy it can be to start sliding down the slippery slope of ethical lapses towards outright fraud.  

    Posted by Suresh

  3. Also in this week's NYT Magazine, by the way: a fragment of a letter I wrote them. I write mainly to contribute to the balance of the letters they see, but it's mostly just irritating to see a version of my words with the main points removed. 

    Posted by Ken Clarkson

  4. Ah, that's what comes of reading the magazine online, and not in print. I didn't see your letter ! 

    Posted by Suresh


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