Sergei Magnitsky

Sergei Magnitsky was a lawyer who investigated the agencies of the Russian government that looted the British firm Hermitage Capital Management. On June 4, 2007, police from the Ministry of the Interior raided the offices, taking all the records and the corporate seal. They then turned over all the assets to various criminal gangs. Hermitage hired Sergei Magnitsky from the law firm of Firestone Duncan to investigate. Magnitsky was arrested and held in prison without charges until he died in 2009, after 359 days, one day short of the legal maximum that you can be held without being charged in Russia. Now, although dead, Magnitsky is being tried for embezzlement.

The Magnitsky Affair is why Russia canceled adoptions by Americans. The Magnitsky Affair is why Russia condemned large lots of US beef as “unfit for sale.” The Magnitsky Affair is the reason for the U.S. Senate bill called the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Bill” which was eventually made an amendment to H.R. 6156 normalizing trade with Russia, which President Obama signed into law on December 14, 2012.

Wikipedia biography of Sergei Magnitsky here.
The doctor who refused to treat him in prison was found not guilty of killing him. (The Independent UK here.)
Russia puts dead lawyer Sergei Magnitsky on trial. (Perth Now here.)
Wikipedia summary of the Magnitsky Bill as introduced in 2010.
The Government Printing Office PDF presentation of the law as signed by President Obama here.

False Prophets: Scientists as Criminals

Twenty percent of scientists are crooks. At university in both Introduction to Criminology and the Senior Seminar in Criminolgy, our professor, Liqun Cao liked to cite an easy claim of “twenty percent.”  The exact numbers – 18.3% or 23.9% – did not matter and neither did the specific study or survey.  The teaching point was that criminality is not unusual.  Heinous crimes are rare.  Daily harms are all too frequent – and we all engage in one or another of them whether speeding or padding expense accounts.  So, too, in science is it important to realize that fraud and misconduct in research are not rare.

cover of book showing medieval laboratoryFalse Prophets: Fraud and Error in Science and Medicine by Alexander Kohn (Oxford: Basil Blackwell: 1986), is a classic work that remains important. It sets a baseline for understanding fraud and misconduct in research.  Kohn repeats famous cases such as Margaret Mead, Robert Millikan, and Trofim D. Lysenko.  He also tells of N-rays, the Allison Effect, the Davis and Barnes Effect,, and polywater. From there, Kohn focuses on his special interest, clinical research.  The book closes with chapters on broad and deep issues in ethics and science.

Marshall Thomsen of Eastern Michigan University has been teaching “Ethical Issues in Physics” for over twenty years.  A search of “ethics physics” and similar items will return citations to Dr. Thomsen’s work at websites from the Illinois Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois, the University of Massachusetts, and Physics Today, among many more. When I had the class, he was on sabbatical and our professor was Patrick Koehn.  The class also has been taught by Prof. Mary Elizabeth Kubitskey. Dr. Kubitskey’s master’s thesis was Teaching Ethics in a High School Physics Class.
The Office of Research Integrity of the US Department of Health and Human Services investigates and acts on cases of fraud in research when federal grant money is involved.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Criminality and Scientific Research:Why Scientists Go Wrong; and Why the Wrong People Become Scientists

 “Crime knows no neighborhood” is an axiom of criminology. In other words, every population contains members who stray from folkways, violate norms, harm others, break laws, ignore contracts, and betray trusts.  Occupation, avocation, ethnicity, nationality, language group, religion, philosophy, ideology, age, sex, gender, height, weight, body mass, and shoe size are all irrelevant. 
So, of course, some scientists are criminals.  They falsify data; and they embezzle research funds. They also harass coworkers and subordinates, discriminate on the basis of race, age, religion, and gender. And they cheat on their spouses, beat their dogs, and kick their cats.  But not every scientist who falsifies data abuses their aged parents. In fact, very few do.  The arithmetic of intersecting sets limits the count.  If 20% of scientists publish phony findings and if 20% of researchers carry non-existent students on their payrolls, then only 4% of research scientists do both.
At the same time, criminality is a way of life.  The criminal researcher does not round up the value of a single point on one graph to make the curve smoother.  And the vagary is not the first lapse after 35 years of devotion to truth.  If a complete and nearly omniscient investigation could be conducted, it would most likely show falsified lab reports in ninth grade biology. 
Of course, “most likely” is not “certainly.” When the case of Jan Hendrick Schön was finally resolved, the University of Konstanz revoked his doctorate, even though his dissertation was above reproach. 
Revocation of degree is perhaps the most serious punishment any scientist can face. See “Another Case of Fraud in University Research” here.  Even though Dr. Eric Poehlman was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. he kept his degrees.
It seems that in the instance of Jan Hendrick Schön the pressure for results was his motive for crime.  The pressure for results has been cited as a cause of research fraud.  However, it is also true that truck drivers also labor under a call for results and that does not justify crime for them.  Basically, everyone whether in a market economy or a centralized state is called upon to produce.  At the end of a sabbatical, a professor is expected to show more than a sun tan.
Given all of the above, the research enterprise that does not engage independent investigation jeopardizes its funding and its social status.  Which loss would be the worse is hard to say.Whether all crimes are evenly distributed across all neighborhoods is another question.  It remains an easy assumption that life sciences are more susceptible to deviance than physical sciences.  Tons of public money are thrown at both; but as living entities are more complicated than subatomic particles, experimental results may be harder to quantify rigorously.  Confirmation bias may be a greater danger when we want to believe that we are helping other people live longer and better.  Another explanation is that the US Department of Health and Human Services actually has  an active Office of Research Integrity, while the U.S. Department of Energy has none. 

On 6 April [2011], a federal district judge in Boston, Massachusetts, dismissed a lawsuit that I had filed in 2009 under the US Freedom of Information Act. He concluded that the US government does not have to release a report on an investigation into a case of alleged scientific misconduct at a national laboratory. The ruling was disappointing but liberating: I finally had occasion to write about a case that has shown how the US Department of Energy (DOE) takes a strikingly hands-off approach to the oversight of such investigations.
“Misconduct oversight at the DOE: Investigation closed” by Eugenie Samuel Reich  Nature 475, 20-22 (2011) Published online 6 July 2011 here

University oversight committees focus on human factors. We seek to protect individuals from unintended harm during experiments and surveys in psychology and sociology. But you cannot hurt a chemical or a star.  Short of serendipity, we only find what we seek. 

 Previously on Necessary Facts