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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 July 2006, 13:42 GMT 14:42 UK
The pressure to hoax
Lisa Jardine
By Lisa Jardine

Piltdown reconstruction, Natural History Museum
Piltdown is perhaps the most infamous scientific fraud
The nature of funding is encouraging scientists to play fast and loose with the truth.

One of the biggest responses to my pieces I've received so far came when I wrote about experimental science - about the way science tries to arrive at the best fit between a general principle and the experimental evidence.

A number of listeners wrote reminding me that my description of scientists as men and women of integrity, painstakingly in pursuit of truth, did not quite tell the whole story. The pressure to be first to reach a particular scientific goal has always been intense. The rewards in terms of personal fame and financial profit can be considerable.

Consequently, some scientists have not been above falsifying the evidence in order to claim an important scientific "breakthrough". There are several notorious hoaxes in the history of science.

In 1912, at a meeting of the Geological Society in London, Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward produced fragments of the skull of so-called Piltdown Man, allegedly discovered by workmen in gravel pits in Sussex.

They proposed that Piltdown man represented an evolutionary missing link between ape and man, and that it confirmed the current cutting-edge theory that a recognisably human brain developed early on in mankind's evolution.

Consensus tends to cohere around 'safe' projects, pushing just a little bit further the boundaries of already well-tried methods

Over 40 years later, Piltdown Man was shown to be a composite forgery, put together out of a medieval human skull, the 500-year-old lower jaw of an orangutan, and chimpanzee fossil teeth.

The deception went undetected for so long because it offered the experts of the day exactly what they wanted - convincing evidence that human evolution was brain-led.

Several of those who wrote to me, however, chose an example of a deception with graver consequences - that of Hwang Woo-suk, a pioneer of stem-cell research, once one of the world's most celebrated specialists in therapeutic cloning.

Until recently he enjoyed celebrity status beyond that of any pop-star in his native South Korea - his public appearances had all the razzmatazz of Hollywood, even a postage stamp was issued in his honour.

Fabrication claim

This month, 53-year-old Hwang has gone on trial, charged with deliberately falsifying his laboratory results and embezzling millions of pounds worth of state funding. If found guilty, he can expect a jail term of up to 10 years.

Last summer Hwang and his team announced that they had created patient-specific stem cell-derived tissue, based on cells taken from 11 separate people.

Stem cells are cells with the ability to develop into any type of tissue - say, tissue to replace a specific damaged organ. By inserting genetic material taken from a number of individual donors, Hwang's lab had for the first time used stem-cells to grow tissue which would match the exact genetic make-up of each one of them.

But six months later, an academic panel found that the results used to support Hwang's dramatic claim, published in the prestigious journal Science, had been "intentionally fabricated". Photographs associated with the experiments had been doctored.

Material from a single source had been adulterated so that it appeared to have come from separate donors. Here was something more serious than experimental error. Here was a "hoax" or "fraud" designed to take in the scientific establishment at the highest level.

Stem cells could potentially be used to repair damaged or defective tissue anywhere in the body, such as the cells in the pancreas that stop producing insulin in diabetics, or the degenerating brain-cells in diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's - research like Hwang's could help millions of people worldwide.

Promising results

So the expectations on the part of doctors and patients, and the government and commercial pressures on scientists working in this field are enormous. The pressure from the South Korean government - determined to be right at the forefront of technological and scientific innovation - for some dramatic pay-off, was extreme.

After promising initial experimental results, Hwang Woo-suk and his researchers succumbed to the temptation to fake key data to make the research outcomes appear more impressive than the results justified.

One of the questions members of the scientific community are asking, is whether Hwang's deception could, or should, have been discovered earlier. That question, inevitably, has been directed at Science magazine, which published the two papers announcing Hwang's supposedly landmark findings.

Hwang Woo-suk
Hwang Woo-suk was a hero and a celebrity in Korea

It has brought into the public domain the process of "peer review" - the method of assessment used within the academy to regulate and control research activity. In scientific research, that process is supposed to ensure that the methodology is sound, and that interpretation of data does not lead to misleading or unreasonable claims.

As one senior scientist comments: "It is good at calming down over-optimistic claims". But peer review is time-consuming - it involves reading the paper, producing detailed comments, evaluating its importance, and ranking it against others in the field. It is often inclined to err on the side of caution.

Consensus tends to cohere around "safe" projects, pushing just a little bit further the boundaries of already well-tried methods and outcomes, rather than supporting those which look more "risky".

No wonder work in new, sensitive fields like stem-cell research is increasingly being carried out in countries like China, where there is little or no regulation. In our world of instant communication and 24-hour news, a deliberative process like peer review can seem frustratingly slow.

Pasteur shortcut

At the outer envelope of current laboratory research, perhaps the great leap forward might be in the direction indicated by the ambitious investigator, whose impatience to arrive first at the next great scientific milestone overcomes his or her proper experimental caution.

In 1885, Louis Pasteur demonstrated the effectiveness of his vaccine against rabies by inoculating a boy badly bitten by a rabid dog. It now emerges that Pasteur's public account of that experiment was carefully drafted to obscure the fact that it violated prevailing ethical standards for the conduct of human experiments - standards that Pasteur had himself just endorsed.

Pasteur suggested that he had previously tested his vaccine on a "large number" of dogs. In fact, his laboratory notebooks reveal the patient was treated using a method that Pasteur had only recently decided to try, and that was entirely untested on animals.

Hwang was honoured by a rather unfortunate stamp

Had the truth come out at the time, Pasteur would probably have been disgraced. As it was, the vaccine's success was such that no doubts were ever raised. Pasteur was a scientific gambler, whose bet paid off. Gamblers try to force the pace of research, wagering that the experimental results they are currently fudging will come good.

By the time the breakthrough has been properly made - a rabies vaccine, a cure for Parkinson's disease - they hope to have successfully produced the genuine evidence, achieved properly verifiable outcomes.

On the other hand, the scientific community pursues a policy of systematic self-regulating - making sure that the procedures followed are sound, and the data have not been exaggerated or manipulated. False claims, strenuously checked and tested, will eventually fail and be rejected.

Sooner or later, Hwang's bogus stem-cell results would have come to light, when they could not be replicated. But financial incentives in the form of massive amounts of government funding are another matter. Political pressure from governments, pouring money directly into work in research areas they have set their hearts on leading, surely does have the capacity to distort even the best-established procedures.

What we must be watchful for are situations were the funding of science demands a rate of return on research investment that increases intolerably the temptation to gamble. Might the blame for Hwang's deception lie, ultimately, at the feet of those who financed him so lavishly, and the state machine that over-inflated his reputation?

It's important to realise that although fraud does occasionally occur, scientific practise is generally good, and this shouldn't give ammunition to those who don't trust its findings. The key point here is that the frauds were discovered, and only gave short-lived benefits to the perpetrators. A key factor in science is reproducability, and particularly in important work like stem cell research this should ensure that fraudsters are discovered fairly quickly.
Dom, Sheffield, England

Scientists tell the truth, politicians are interested in our wellbeing, global warming is proved, evolution is proven, I'm a dalek. There's only one of the above statements with any credence - and that's because scientists haven't met me!
Dominic, Teddington, UK

Bjorn Lomborg, author of the "Skeptical Environmentalist", shows very clearly how funds follow fashion, and researchers whose work exaggerates the latest scare (Global Warming, SARS, Avian Flu etc) get more funding than those who put things in proper proportion....no surprises where the incentives for career development are, then!
Ian, Harpenden

An excellent article but it neglects to look further at the problem with 'anonymous peer review.' It is a running joke in academia. Once you have been an academic in a very narrow field (like stem cell research) for a long time you KNOW whose work you're peer reviewing and the writer may well be able to work out who the reviewer is, because a journal only has a few. If the person's a friend, academics are far more trusting and less critical. That may well be why Hwang's fraud could be published in an eminent journal. In a lesser journal where the reviewer was an obscure junior lecturer the fraud may actually have been picked up on!
Dr. Ed, Oulu, Finland

As a scientist I agree that we are loosing sight of the truth in science for the reasons described above. Recognition through press coverage comes only if the science is of interest to the general public. The science sells better if it is alarmist or with an over inflated sense of its own self importance. I have myself seen that press attention is only drawn if either the science is trivialized to the point of absurdity or over-egged on its importance to the point that it threatens either all of mankind or life as we know it (depending on which particular episode of horizon you are watching). Making your own research a matter of life and death gains funding. It is because of this that the so called evidence for global warming must be scrutinized in a harsher light. The standard of evidence needed to commit a man to jail for murder needs to be stronger due the severity of the sentence than the standard of evidence needed to try a man for a lesser crime. The same applies here.!
Dave, Leicester

Unfortunately this does reflect the way that the majority of science proceeds. Many papers get through peer review by simply adding citations of the reviewer's papers - as suggested by the reviewer! Citations are gold dust and a reviewer can be easily placated with a couple. This is encouraged by the performance-review, publish-or-perish culture being forced on scientists by department heads. In addition, I know many fellow scientists who have submitted abstracts for conferences without having actually done (or finished) the experiment related in said abstract. They are gambling on the outcome supporting their predictions. Unfortunately, the pressure to register early for a conference (by offering much lower rates) only encourages this behaviour.
Sven, Montreal, Canada

There is certainly a need to produce good results, but most scientists are well reasoned and would never defraud. Hwang's is an unfortunate case of a dishonest person making it into the public eye. Can you write some stories about the good things scientific research has brought the world?
Steve Matthews, Bristol, UK

"Might the blame for Hwang's deception lie, ultimately, at the feet of those who financed him so lavishly, and the state machine that over-inflated his reputation?" Possibly however my main concern would be the ideas that might never come to light when scientists are over cautious due to worrying about the reception suvh ideas my get from their peers.
John Delaney, Glasgow

I work in a lab that competes for funding in the UK and i must say that its hard to continue doing work when the director spends all his time showing propestive funders, or current funders, around the lab. Maybe the people who fund this should stop checking up, read the reports and papers, and let us get back to working.

A lot of research in this country is finance-led, with little interest in pure research. Who will risk their funding by telling, say, their oil company sponsor that cars run great on chip-oil and petrochemical products are pointless? Peer review is of limited use, i think. Who will send their papers to a peer who might perform a hatchet job to discredit a rival? I worked for a professor who only ever submitted work for peer review amongst a cosy set of supportive cohorts.
Donna, manchester, uk

Some scientists will falsify their results. Some doctors will murder their patients. Some bankers will embezzle funds. Some teachers will mistreat their pupils. Some financiers will commit fraud. Some journalists will misrepresent the "facts". All professions have members whose integrity is suspect; the majority are reliable and trustworthy.
Spanne, Cambridge UK

As long as science remains funded in part by bodies that ultimately require the generation of revenue streams there will always be pressure and a temptation to overstate or even falsify results. Research, including a large part of the pharmaceutical research must go back to being an adjunct to academia, where the principle reward is the pursuit and discovery of new knowledge. The funding body (government) will ultimately get a return on successful discoveries through production licensing etc but this should not be the principle driving force.
Ross, Dover

In all branches of scientific research funding is a scarce commodity, with lots of groups fighting for the same funding contract. All it takes if for one person to say they have had a 'breakthrough' and the money is instantly theirs. It's no wonder scientists take a gamble.
Sian, Kent, UK

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