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A Defense

There’s a follow-up in Science to their story about a situation in Lee Rubin’s group at Harvard. A long list of present and former Rubin lab members and scientific collaborators have written a letter about the article, and about Prof. Rubin. “It is our collective experience“, they write, “that besides being an outstanding scientist, he is a warm and caring scientific mentor who does not deserve to have the reputation he has built over 40 years or more besmirched.” The tone of the letter makes it clear that its signers feel that the original article was too heavily weighted towards the journalistic “Here are two equal and opposing sides” convention, which is a common complaint.

Of course, the problem with such situations is that there’s so much mud to go around that it’s hard for anyone to come out without some on them, no matter what the facts may turn out to be. It’s like a contested divorce or an inheritance fight, and just as with those, the facts can run all the way from “this disaster was a team effort” to the entire thing being driven by one unstable or vengeful personality, with everyone else looking on in disbelief. Things aren’t helped by the unimpeachable fact that science (and perhaps academic science even more than other parts) is well stocked with unusual personalities. Some of them are unstable geniuses (like Kurt Gödel), but some are just plain unstable, minus the Gödelian ability to find things in relativity theory that were odd enough to surprise Einstein. At any rate, I very much hope, for everyone’s sake, that the situation in Rubin’s group can be resolved in a way that will allow everyone to do something more fruitful with their time and energy.

Update: please note that I will delete ad hominem comments and baseless allegations – those are almost the only things I ever do delete.

23 comments on “A Defense”

  1. Annon says:

    Whoops – Lee Rubin’s group at Harvard, yes? Not Scripps?

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Fixed! My brain typoed that, because I was reading a paper from another Scripps group (Matt Disney’s lab) at the same time, as a possible blogging topic. Dang brain. More trouble than it’s worth some mornings.

      1. cancer_man says:

        NR gets past the blood-brain barrier, Derek…. Then again, so does caffine.

  2. anon says:

    “However, McCook failed to take into consideration Rubin’s longstanding reputation as a scientist and a mentor.”

    What does this have to do with the situation anyway?? A scientist with “longstanding reputation” can’t do any wrong??

    1. not_anon says:

      More like, a professor should be able to kick out a nut-job grad student.

      1. AC says:

        You mean that a professor “motivated by bias and revenge” should be able to get away with retaliating against a student for potentially raising misconduct concerns?

        1. Mark Thorson says:

          Yes, and wiretap their phones.

          1. alphonese says:

            And don’t forget Rubin using the boyfriend of one of his students to physically intimidate the plaintiff. ,,, by his mere presence … Anyway, what I really really don’t understand is the judge’s findings. Sure wish Science had analyzed the court proceedings rather than just stated the outcome. What evidence so clearly indicated that Rubin acted vindictively? OTOH, while it would be a simpler world if behavior was constant, age, changing circumstances, and a possible uniquely pathological relationship limit the usefulness of historical experience with Rubin’s character as being persuasive.

  3. tlp says:

    I bet the number of joint publications correlates pretty well with the sentiment towards Dr. Rubin. And certainly none of the letter authors raised any serious concerns about his papers’ quality to his face.

    Otherwise how could they write something like “Rubin’s scientific reputation can be readily appreciated simply by skimming through the list of his stellar publications”? Everyone would say the same about Dr. Sames before Bengu Sezen’s case.

    One can find plenty of people who will sign similar letters for Corey, Nicolaou or Carreira, but everyone knows that their reputation is not as innocent. Is there such thing as academic Stockholm syndrome?

    I’d stick to the court’s decision as the most objective one. Manipulations with public opinion are secondary to that.

    1. Clog says:

      What is the general feedback from people in Carreira’s lab?. I have never heard anything wrong.

      1. Click the link in my handle…a classic!

    2. A says:

      All of the signatories have labs now, right? So they are all part of an NIH funding coterie, and rely on each other’s and their former advisors goodwill for continued funding. This mess presents a chance for them to do some kissing up publicly. Furthermore, they need to shore up the gigantic, exploitative system that allows them to use underpaid temps (=postdocs) on a rolling basis forever to do their experiments.

      If you want the real story, you have to ask the people who joined the Rubin lab and then left science.

      1. tlp says:

        well, for the first two sentences the answer is ‘no’

  4. Anon says:

    Personally, I don’t see what the “my whole group likes me (because if they don’t they’ll never graduate)” letter proves…

    If a judge concluded it was bias and revenge and picked a grad student with no reputation over a tenured Harvard professor what does that tell you?

    1. Anon says:

      I agree. It doesn’t matter how many people love or hate you as a PI. A judge made a decision whether you like it or not. Can anyone publish a similar Letter for every Science news?

      1. Isidore says:

        It matters in determining whether this was an isolated incident or a pattern, Even Harvard professors have human failings occasionally, but if such failings are frequent then it’s another matter altogether.

        1. flblbl says:

          Allegedly, this was a long-term, repeated “human failing”. It has a pattern in itself.
          There’s a difference between slapping a guy in the face and spying on him and wanting him sent to a psych ward, whether said guy is antagonizing you or not. If that professor really did all that is claimed, he went banana bonkers and measures should be taken for that case alone.
          However, if there’s enough matter for it (I mean, there must be a reason this all started with this guy, and none of the other students), the student should be judged for his actions too. Separately.

          1. AC says:

            “with this guy, and none of the other students”

            From the original story, it seems that the PI suspected that the student raised concerns of possible research misconduct. The judge found that the PI retaliated against this student for this reason.

    2. Bla says:

      It tells you they probably haven’t got a clue about how academia works. If a PI has a reputation for being fair and good to work for, and has no previous complaints against them, what is more likely? Nut-job student, or secret arsehole PI?

      1. AC says:

        I believe that the judge has a better ability to assess the situation in its entirety and make a conclusion than you.

        You should re-read the original article – this isn’t simply a case of asshole PI or nut-job student. The situation is the PI allegedly retaliating against a student due to suspecting the student of reporting a possible case of research misconduct.

  5. Cato says:

    Honestly, in cases like this you never know who is telling the truth, but frankly I usually tend to believe the accusing students. It’s been commented on here before, but the power dynamics between professors and their students is ripe for abuse–not that all, or even many, act in bad faith, but having seen first-hand the actions taken by some professors at a top-tier institution, and the lack of accountability afterward, it really is a travesty of the advanced educational system that this status quo is maintained.

  6. Bron says:

    The problem is in the system. PI have unchecked power over their postdocs and students, and sooner or later it will lead to trouble. Especially considering that new PIs are higher based on their scientific potential, and without any regard for their people-management skills.

  7. Bron says:

    *hired based on their scientific potential

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