We’re pleased to share this guest post from Leonid Schneider, a cell biologist, science journalist and a prolific cartoonist whose work graces our Twitter profile and Facebook page. In it, Schneider argues for a new way to ensure accountability for publicly funded research.
It has become clear that scientific dishonesty is rarely sanctioned. In the worst case scenario, manipulated or fraudulent papers have to be retracted, yet scientists of a certain academic standing can weather retractions without much adverse effect on their careers or institutional budgets. Retraction Watch lists plenty of cases in which the full blame for retracted papers has been accepted by the first author, with the senior principal investigator (PI) continuing as nothing has happened. Cases of justice, like that of the HIV-vaccine fraudster Dong-Pyou Han, who has apparently accepted a plea bargain after losing his job at Iowa State University, which in turn had to forfeit part of a $14.5 million NIH grant to the lab in which he worked, are very rare.
The problem is that scientific misconduct is difficult to pinpoint as a crime in a legal sense, as it only indirectly benefits the perpetrator financially. Grant funding, deceitfully procured through research misconduct is indeed not “legally” embezzled, as it does actually flow into academic research, through salaries, reagents, equipment, consumables and institutional overhead. Additionally, and probably also consequently, institutional investigations into alleged misconduct usually run dry, and grant agencies hardly ever ask their money back. This however cannot remain the case, or academic science as it is meant to be will eventually cease to exist, simply because the public may lose interest in financing faulty and fraudulent research.
It is reasonable to assume that a funding agency, public or charitable, may indeed be rather interested in recovering the huge sums it has previously granted on false assumptions. After all, most grant proposals are constructed around a small number of central recent publications by the applicant. If the central paper is retracted, the justification for the positive proposal evaluation is theoretically gone as well. Here, I would argue that it is actually irrelevant whether the rationale for the retractions was data manipulations, ethical breaches, plagiarism, fraud or even an “honest mistake,” if such a thing actually even exists. The previously successful funding proposal turned out to lack any foundation.
So why don’t granting agencies simply claim their money back? Because, at present, they have little chance of succeeding. The fractions awarded as direct salaries to PIs are either too small or legally hardly accessible for such damage claims, which can easily go into hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars. Lab heads rarely keep their funding stashed in a bank account waiting to be raided by the furious grant giver. Instead, the money is already invested and consumed in the institutional research and part of the institutional budget. And this is exactly where I think change is needed.
The academic institutions, namely universities as well as research centers and hospitals, are largely co-responsible for everything going on under their roofs. Just as the institutions readily claim their chunk of fame and cash showers when their labs publish a high-impact paper, so they must also be made to share the responsibilities when such paper is retracted. These institutions must be made to repay the grants their researchers have dishonestly acquired.
How to do this? I propose that funding agencies demand a refund clause in every grant application, signed by the applicant’s current or potential host institution. This clause would specify the institutional responsibility in case the earlier publications by the applicant on which the proposal is based should ever be retracted, regardless of the reasons. Grant proposals without such signed clauses would not be processed upon submission. The percentage of refund can be further specified to consider the reasons for retraction, degree of how each cited publication by the applicant is to be weighted, the extent and transparency of the institutional investigation, the perpetrators’ stance, recidivism and so on.
Importantly, the clause should apply to every retraction, not just those in which misconduct is proven. Otherwise, the institutions would have an incentive to cover up misconduct, simply to avoid being fined for it. Even in the very rare cases of artifacts, initially misinterpreted in good faith, what would be the point of funding a further investigation into these artifacts as originally proposed in the grant application? This may appear unfair to the unlucky honest authors of artifactual papers, but supported by a thorough investigation, any serious grant agency would be inclined to find a compromise solution.
The benefits of a refund clause are many. Primarily, the repaid grant money will become again available to the more honest applicants, those who were left empty-handed back in the previous rounds. This is particularly important in today’s climate of austerity and budget cuts. But the side effects will be even more substantial. What faculty or board of directors will still support and protect a PI who caused their (usually notoriously cash-strapped) institutions to face such a hefty fine? The days of the old one-hand-washes-the-other culture, in which dishonest scientists could continue as before, with the silent blessing from their colleagues and employers, will be over. No promise of future papers will be that appealing to the host institute if it has to fear another retraction and the ensuing damage claims from the funding agencies. Even established professors and senior PIs, when caught in misconduct, may then easily find themselves out of a tenured job or at least have their lab stripped of assets, personnel and financial support. When filling new positions and at tenure hearings, the institutions may start considering factors other than just the impact factors and associated likelihood of grant funding.
On the other hand, PIs will be more mindful which kind of research attitude they encourage in their labs. Nowadays, some office-bound PIs hardly know or actually want to know how exactly the experimental results were obtained, as long as they fit the PI’s predictions and expectations. Thus, even a retraction can be shrugged off with a hint to an allegedly criminally-minded PhD student or postdoc, a snake at one’s honest bosom. Yet it will not be that simple when your employer comes after your tenure and your lab, waving a grant agency’s spectacular bill. Group leaders’ dreams of a “productive” junior scientist, who always delivers the experimental data nicely fitting the set expectations, may turn into a nightmare. Modern scientific research could finally move towards open-hypothesis and curiosity-driven approach, instead being the product of not always reliable or reproducible intelligent design of its creators.
Finally, large and influential grant agencies, when seeking financial compensation where misconduct is suspected, may also exert pressure on journals, many of which seem rather reluctant to retract papers even where manipulations are blatantly evident. The fact is, grant agencies like NIH, MRC or DFG (who also subsidize journal subscriptions) do wield a lot more power than Retraction Watch or PubPeer, in regard to dealing with the science publishers. Thus, even more of the faulty and irreproducible papers may get the axe, instead of being saved by editors and dishonest authors, who chuckle behind our backs by ignoring and dismissing the accusations or publishing inappropriate errata and corrigenda.
With such a solid civil law standing for refund claims, grant agencies should see as much easier to win in court, and it would be pointless for institutions to help PIs feign “honest errors” or shift the blame on some junior scientists. Refund claims for proven scientific misconduct and criminal investigations would remain unaffected. This paradigm shift may initiate a more profound change in research attitudes and activities than anything else.
There may be initial negatively perceived side effects, especially if a compensation claim-slapped institution decides to cut down on all research labs inside its walls, both bad and good. Yet keeping dishonest scientists in their jobs and power may be even more detrimental to the financial situation of their honest colleagues. Moreover, why not introduce a rebate system for institutions, provided these can credibly live up to their promise of a misconduct investigation, especially if the universities and research centers fix the misconduct issues convincingly and restore scientific good practice before the compensation claims from the grant agencies even arrive? The fines may not even have to be enforced, but the science and the papers the institution produces would still become very different. Certainly they would become more reliable.