Extreme measures only will combat corruption

January 20, 2006

The Korean cloning scandal could not have happened without the West's compliance, argues Robert Laughlin

Here in Korea there is tremendous soul-searching, hand-wringing and blame-assigning over the Woo Suk Hwang cloning scandal. A Westerner wishing to comprehend it need only imagine what would occur in the West if Neil Armstrong's moon walk was revealed to have been faked. The disappointment that "our" technology hadn't "won" would depress everybody.

But the shame would be unbearable. Everyone would understand that with the endless checks, reviews and scrutiny by reporters such a monumental deception could not occur unless the system itself was corrupt. Newspaper columnists would have a field day. People would tell delightful Russian-style jokes.

The charming twist in the Hwang case, however, is that the inept checking, reviewing and scrutinising were not Korean. The papers in question were published in Western journals and were blessed by the international scholars that those journals had employed as referees. While the Koreans are flagellating themselves over being bad people, the editors and referees responsible for the failure are dissembling and making excuses. It is rather comical, like Thomas Nast's famous cartoon "Who stole the people's money?": a circle of corrupt government officials pointing fingers at each other in an endless loop.

The argument that the Hwang case is an isolated event isn't believable. For instance, a few years ago the Jan Hendrik Schoen affair heaped shame on my discipline of semiconductor physics. The more important point is that for every fraud you detect, hundreds go undetected.

The underlying cause of the problem is economic. While scientists like to think of themselves as holy and uncorrupted by the flesh, they are actually human beings in business relationships with government agencies and journals. These involve a certain amount of deception, as all such relationships do. The business model of the scientist emphasises getting the next grant, which prioritises creating good relationships with colleagues likely to be one's next reviewer. The business model of the journals emphasises circulation, which demands publishing hot news. The business model of the government agencies emphasises value, which requires key details of the work remaining undisclosed (since disclosed knowledge can't be sold and thus has no "value"). But the key observation is that none of these businesses profit from reproducing old experiments - the very thing required to make sure that frauds of this kind never occur.

Whether something can or should be done about this problem is also an economic question. Public-domain science traffics a stupendous amount of money, and a few unfortunate credibility slip-ups may be a price everyone is willing to pay for all the overheads, publication charges, subscription fees, foreign travel and job security they get. I think this is a mistake.

The private sector can generate profitable but flawed research much more cost-effectively than the public sector can, and descending to its level is an invitation for governments to eliminate public science altogether on grounds of efficiency.

My experiences tell me unequivocally that only by maintaining special standards of credibility can public-sector science survive. Those standards are achieved through the ethic that all important details are revealed, all important claims are verified, all communication is clear, and all refereeing is competent.

Thus I favour responding to recent events fiercely. I would like the journals that published these papers banned forever from consideration in grant applications. Papers published in them would become invisible in the funding process, to the great detriment of the journals' business. I would like government agencies that supported the referees compelled to reduce their weighting of unreproduced claims in grant competitions. Agencies wishing to preferentially support people for having "technology" so "far ahead" that their work can't be tested by anyone else must order this technology revealed or leave legitimate science to someone else. I would also like the budget appropriations of these agencies linked to their published track record in uncovering falsehoods. These suggestions are extreme, but so is the problem.

In struggling to deal with the cloning scandal, people often ask me what it means to do science by international standards. My answer is that there is only one international standard of science: openness. We have to relearn it the hard way from time to time.

Robert Laughlin is a Nobel laureate for physics. He is on leave from Stanford University to serve as president of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

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