April 16, 2024

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The Scientist’s Dilemma

The Scientist’s Dilemma

I am on the board for one of University of California, Irvine, Medical Schools fellowships, which awards a fellowship to one MD/PhD student every year.

The reason why I agreed to be on this panel is not just to give money to a student doing good research but because I wanted to see the future of science, which begins at the university level. 

And the future of science isn’t in the research, it is in the scientist. 

Every year we receive research proposals from each applicant that details what they are working on. Most students have been working on their research subject for many years and have at least one publication detailing their work. We receive many proposals and select the top 5 proposals for an in-person presentation. And from the 5 presenters we select one winner. 

We have been meeting long enough at this point that patterns emerge amongst the winners for the fellowship. The fellowship winner is not necessarily the one with the best research, the fellowship winner is the one who presents their research the best. 

This year the fellowship winner was one who we were all in unanimous agreement was the best. She presented her research professionally, clearly and confidently. Her work also had great promise for real-world application because it focused on understanding viral infections and immune response. 

Her presentation and work stood out to me because she was an outstanding scientist. But another student stood out to me in her presentation because she was the opposite, she was a scared scientist.

The Bantam Menace

The scared scientist is one who is afraid to take credit for their work. When discussing research they solely conducted, they use terms of “we” instead of “I”. The scared scientist is one who poorly presents their research. Instead of confident and prepared in their results and explaining them to the room in a coherent and elegant way, the scared scientist rushes through their ill-prepared presentation and speaks quickly and staccatically. If we can’t understand the scientists research, regardless of its merit, it isn’t getting funding. And will go nowhere.

But perhaps the worst quality, the most dangerous quality of the scared scientists is the fear of their results. It is this fear that makes the scared scientist a menace. 

A few months ago the head of the fellowship board and myself met with the past winners to discuss the progress of their current research. One past winner mentioned his work on the hippocampus in adult mice and how he made a discovery that the hippocampus may be asymmetrical, which goes against the established narrative in the literature that the hippocampus is symmetrical.

When I asked him when he would be publishing his findings, he said he will not be publishing them. Research that could fundamentally change our understanding of emotion and memory, and lead to meaningful work and cures of disease was swept under the rug. And the reason was because this research was conducted by a scared scientist. He was afraid to publish this data because the data contradicted his colleagues work, and if he published contradicting data, he feared he would be ostracised from the scientific community. 

The above scenario is not rare, it happens in every scientific lab on the planet. The dilemma of the scientist of whether to publish or to be liked is why science, once a grand rapid river of information has become a tepid pool of stillwater data. 

The scientists dilemma of to publish the truth or to be one of the crowd is not without merit, and is one of the reasons why I left the scientific community and started my own lab. It is the reason why many scientists left their scientist milieu to go their own way. One notable example is Barbara McClintock and her discovery of transposons. Barbara McClintock, while researching chromosomes in maize found something odd: genes aren’t fixed, but move or transpose and are capable of being turned on and off. She was laughed out of the scientific community, met with anger and rage from her colleagues and was refused publication. But she put her data out there anyway and was awarded the Nobel Prize many years later when everyone admitted she was right. 

If instead of worrying about their own ego, McClintocks peers would have looked at her data, then we would be decades ahead of genetic research than we are now. And we would have published scientific work that shows the negative in addition to the positive data. The problem is that published scientific research is more self serving to the peers and journals than to the public. 

Peer askew

The peer review process and scientific publication does nothing to weed out the bad science and uplift the good science. In fact, it does the opposite. An example: When I was studying stem cell biology, my professor had ultimately abandoned her research in stem cell biology, a highly competitive and cutthroat field. She was doing good work in understanding how stem cells could be used to treat glial scar formation on the spinal cord and could have helped a lot of people with her work.

The reason why she stopped was because of the corruption of the peer review process. She explained how whenever she tried to publish her data, one of the “peers” of the journal would either reject her paper because it contradicted his work, or put the paper on hold, steal the methods and results, and publish that data himself. She explained the stealing or silencing of research was pervasive enough to get her to quit science and just focus on teaching. 

I had experienced the above myself, albeit on a lesser level. I have been offered bribes to take down my research on hyaluronic acid, vitamin C and essential oils. Or interviews of mine discussing their ill-effects have been scrubbed from the internet because the advertisers on those publications own skin care brands that my research put into question. 

 

We see that science is less new and innovative and more of the same and I know it is because of the fear of being alone in ones stance. Today, the scared scientist is the norm and the courageous scientist, the exception. Like many other areas of our society, those with a dissenting voice are the target of public ridicule or cancellation. And in the end, this censorship in the name of saving feelings or preservation of ego hurts progress. And in the name of progress we have to ask for the real scientist to stand up.