Scientific Integrity Issues

April 20, 2012 | By | Add a Comment

Fundamentally, scientific misconduct falls under intentional falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism.  However, even with good intentions and a code of conduct, unfortunately science is usually performed from the outset with at least a bias, and often with a predetermined goal in mind.

When I decided to take my first job after graduate school at NASA, my Ph.D. advisor jokingly acknowledged that “the only reason NASA has scientists is to justify putting junk in space”.  This statement is actually not far from the truth.  NASA is charged with a responsibility of using space to explore the Earth and the Universe.  So, generally scientists at NASA work hard to figure out how to use space technology to address a science question or application.  They are not employed to discount the use of space technology for science, or to determine the best way to answer a science issue.  So, they often end up doing a lot of good research that supports the use of space for science endeavors.  While this work is fundamentally ethical, it does not necessarily give decision makers and society optimal answers for important scientific questions, and may lead to inefficient use of public resources.

Further, enforcement of scientific codes of conduct by political appointees, managers and prosecutors, who generally lack scientific understanding, are subject to abuse.  Abuse is realized when science studies are solicited to support a predetermined outcome, to advance a political agenda or policy, or when policy makers actually interfere with the science reporting to steer the results to a favorable outcome. The resulting science itself may be sound but the pre-determined bias makes it useless for the public-trust and for sound decision making.

Peer review is often touted a way to justify sound-science, or to sort out good science from bad science.  Unfortunately, just like there are no regulations for the quality of water in your bottled water, there are also no peer-review standards.  Often peer-reviewers are asked preloaded review questions that steer them to a per-determined answer, the peer review is sponsored by an agency that is seeking a certain answer, or the peer reviewers themselves have conflicts of interest that prevent them from being impartial.

Data stewardship is another critical aspect that can lead to scientific mismanagement and misconduct.  A cornerstone of the scientific method is that a scientific result should be able to be duplicated by an independent researcher using the same data and methods.  In addition, by law, any data paid for by the taxpayer should be available to the public for use in such studies.  Unfortunately,  all too often, scientists are not given the resources or the authority to be good stewards of their data and to make them easily and publicly available.  Managers often do not see a benefit for their organizations to be good data stewards, or worse, are fearful that by making their data available, others may question their science or decisions.  This all leads to poor data stewardship, which further erodes scientific integrity and the public-trust in science.


Filed in: Integrity

Dr. Paul R. Houser

About the Author (Author Profile)

Dr. Houser in an internationally recognized expert in local to global land surface-atmospheric remote sensing, in-situ observation and numerical simulation, development and application of hydrologic data assimilation methods, scientific integrity and policy, and global water and energy cycling. He received his B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Hydrology and Water Resources from the University of Arizona in 1992 and 1996 respectively. Dr. Houser's previous experience includes internships at the U.S. Geological Survey and at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Dr. Houser joined the NASA-GSFC Hydrological Sciences Branch and the Data Assimilation Office (DAO/GMAO) in 1997, served as manager of NASA’s Land Surface Hydrology Program, and served as branch head of the Hydrological Science Branch. In 2005, he joined the George Mason University Climate Dynamics Program and the Geography and Geoinformation Sciences Department as Professor of Global Hydrology, and formed CREW (the Center for Research for Environment and Water). Dr. Houser has also teamed with groundwater development and exploration companies (EarthWater Global and Geovesi) and has served as Science Advisor to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Dr. Houser has led numerous scientific contributions, including the development of Land Data Assimilation Systems (LDAS), the Hydrospheric States Mission (Hydros/SMAP), the Land Information System (LIS), the NASA Energy and Water cycle Study (NEWS), and the Water Cycle Solutions Network (WaterNet).

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