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Science Careers Blog

August 25, 2010

The heroes of the Hauser affair

I have been reading the copious reportage on the Hauser affair at Harvard with admiration and respect. But that respect is not for the prominent professor who is alleged to have grievously abused his position and the trust of his colleagues and subordinates, nor is it for the cautious bureaucrats at that influential university who have apparently investigated the case at something less than warp speed. Their motivations hold little mystery.  

No, the people who have my unbounded approval are those the Chronicle of Higher Education terms "members of Mr. Hauser's lab" who blew the whistle on the great man's infractions. These anonymous underlings were, according to the Chronicle, research assistants and graduate students. In other words, bright, hard-working, underpaid, obscure and powerless young people at the very beginning of their own careers who had very little to gain and very much to lose by crossing an extremely powerful senior figure at one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the United States.

My own reporting and discussions with young scientists tell me that in today's intensely competitive scientific world, the pressure to give data the, shall we say, most favorable possible interpretation is often very intense -- and the rewards of doing so are often not insignificant. More people than we know have doubtlessly succumbed.  

But these particular people in Hauser's lab did not. Instead, they took the bold -- some may say self-destructive -- step of reporting their suspicions of a superior's wrongdoing. As the excruciating Imanishi-Kari/Baltimore case illustrated some years back, such an action rarely benefits the career of the whistle-blower. Indeed, the Chronicle reports that at least one of those who who provided information to the university authorities in the Hauser case has since "left psychology." One hopes he or she was lured away by a brilliant and lucrative offer in some highly promising field -- but somehow one suspects that's probably not the case.

So why did they do it? An essay in yesterday's Chronicle by Michael Ruse suggests an explanation. "Seventy years ago," he writes, "the great sociologist Robert K. Merton made a number of points about science, and they seem still to hold today. Above all, he stressed that science is a community activity. Scientists may not always work together, although of course that is now very much the norm, but they do rely on each other, particularly for the ideas and theories that they use in their own research. In turn, they contribute -- and want to contribute -- to the general pool of knowledge."

The brave and upright individuals in Hauser's lab appear to have acted in the interest of everyone in science rather than of their own careers. That these benefactors choose to remain anonymous suggests, however, that they expect neither reward nor honor from the community they helped. That's a real shame, because the integrity of science depends on people like them and on acts like theirs.

Stories I've heard from a number of young researchers suggest that fear of retribution has kept, is keeping, and will continue to keep others aware of wrongdoing from telling what they know. In a just world, people who put the community's welfare above their own should be celebrated and formally thanked by the people they have aided. Maybe this will still happen for those from Hauser's lab. I'm not holding my breath, but I certainly hope it does.

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