20 September 2013

Fake it until you make it? The case of Louis LaPierre

Louise LaPierre, 71, has been working and teaching biology at the Université de Moncton for 31 years. He’s published original, data-driven ecology papers in peer-reviewed journals.

He’s a member of the Order of Canada, which is near the top of honours the Government of Canada can bestow.

And now people are saying he is “not a real scientist.”

For years, LaPierre said he held a doctorate in ecology from the University of Maine. Instead, he has a doctorate in education from Walden University. Initially, at the start of September, LaPierre claimed there was a cooperative agreement between the two institutions, but that turned out not to be the case.
LaPierre admits that he mislead people about his credentials.

That said... does that mean that is is “not a scientist”, as several reports are claiming?

This case represents an interesting examination of the tension between credentials (the doctoral degree) and performance (papers) in a profession.

In listening to this story described on The Current, I get the impression that the degree matters to those outside the profession. Journalists are tending to be the ones using the phrase “not a scientist” in describing this story. At one point, the host calls him, “Mr. LaPierre.” That he holds a doctoral degree is not in dispute, so it would still be correct to address him as “Doctor,” not “Mister.”

Here’s one from the student federation president at University of Moncton:

(University of Moncton student federation president Kevin Arseneau) acknowledges that LaPierre has done a lot of respectable work over the years. But he says that's little reassurance to those who studied biology under him.

“He still did work in those fields so he must have gained some experience,” said Arseneau. “But still it’s all experience gained over a lie.(”)

Likewise, another group of people who would tend to emphasize credentials are those people now have a vested interest in sowing doubt about LaPierre’s credibility at every turn. Listening to some of the people interviewed on The Current, it seems that LaPierre’s willingness to give policy advice to provincial and federal governments made him unpopular with people who disagreed with his recommendations. .

This quote from Memorial University’s Ian Jones is interesting in that regard:

“Seems like they’ve appointed somebody who is in a very powerful position who has a lot of expertise in hob-knobbing with politicians, and hob-knobbing with industrialists, but who doesn’t have the scientific credentials so - how cynical does that make you?” said Jones.

When I have discussed this to people who either are professional scientists or are closer to professionals scientists, most are reacting with, “What does it matter, as long as he was publishing papers?”

Personally, I am more interested in his performance than the credentials. I am not in the “Once a scientist, always a scientist” camp. I think people should only call themselves scientists when they are active in the profession. That generally (but not exclusively) means publishing original journal articles.

La Pierre’s biography (below) emphasizes his honours and panels on which he served. It’s too bad there is not a line about his publication record.

If you are on the side that his performance matters more than his credentials in whether to call LaPierre a scientist, this still doesn’t necessarily mean that LaPierre’s action is a mere faux pas. There have been many, many cases where one discovery of a researcher doing something dishonest becomes just the first tug of the thread. Soon, a few more tugs, and entire careers are unravelling. This is how you researchers end up with double or triple digit numbers of retractions.

It will be very interesting to see if anyone uncovers problems with any of LaPierre’s papers.

Additional, 27 September 2013: Some interesting discussion emerging at Justin Kiggin’s G+ page:

Related posts

Who gets to be a scientist?

External links

Faking academic credentials
N.B. academic Louis LaPierre's credentials face scrutiny
Students pay for Louis LaPierre's deceptions, says leader
Alward government downplays impact of LaPierre resignation
Louis LaPierre resigns from federal board amid PhD turmoil

Some of LaPierre’s papers

Female Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) Reproductive Tracts from Fenitrothion Treated and Untreated Forest of Southeastern New Brunswick
Persistence of fenitrothion insecticide in poplar Populus tremuloides and gray birch Betula populifolia
The model forest concept: a model for future forest management?
Canada's Model Forest Program

LaPierre biography


Louis LaPierre is Professor Emeritus in Biology at the Université de Moncton since October 2003. At this same university, he was holder of the K.-C.-Irving Chair in Sustainable Development from 1993 to 2001, professor of Wildlife and Environmental Ecology from 1970 to 1999, and Director of the Master in Environmental Studies program from 1994 to 1999. Between 1990 and 1994, he was also director of the Environmental Science Research Centre.

Since 1996, Dr. LaPierre is chair of the Institute for Environmental Monitoring and Research associated with the low-level flying program in Labrador and northeastern Québec (appointed by the Minister of National Defense). He also serves as a Council Member of Sustainable Development Technology Canada since 2003. And in September 2008, he was named as a member of the list of prequalified members of assessment panels for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. Since April 2010, he is a member to the NB Power board of directors. Since July 2011, he is a member of the Environmental Assessment Panel for the Marathon Platinum Group Metals and Copper Mine Project. And in May 2012, he has been named as Panel Chair for the NB Shale Gas.

Dr. LaPierre was appointed as a member of the Order of Canada in 2012 for his contributions to the protection and preservation of the natural environment at the local, provincial and national levels.

As a concerned citizen and active member of several environmental groups, Dr. LaPierre has dedicated the past 40 years to the protection of the environment at the provincial, national and international levels. He served as chair of the Fundy Model Forest for 10 years. He was chairman of the Environmental Council of New Brunswick between 1981 and 1990 and, between 1989 and 1991 was chairman of the Sustainable Development Task Force for the Premier's Round Table on Environment and Economy. From 1998 to 2003, Dr. LaPierre co-chaired the Round Table with the New Brunswick Minister of Economic Development. In April 1997, he was invited to develop an integrated strategy for the protection of natural areas in New Brunswick. From 2004 to 2006, he was a member of the Canadian Standards Association. From 2004 to 2006, he was a member of the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council. In 2005 and 2006, he was a member of the Environmental Review Panel for the environmental assessment of the Sydney Tar Ponds. In 2007, he was Chair of the Advisory Committee on Used-Tire Management for the Nova Scotia Department of Environment and Labour. From 2001 to 2010, he was a Tribunal Review Officer for the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. From September 2008 to August 2009, he was chair of the joint review panel for the Bruce Power New Nuclear Reactor project. From November 2009 to February 2010, he was a member of the Advisory Panel on the proposed NB/Québec electricity transaction.

In 2006, Dr. LaPierre received a crystal maple leaf award from the Canadian Model Forest Network. In 2001, he received an Honorary Doctorate in Science from the Université Sainte-Anne. He was recognized as Alumnus of the Year for 2000 by this same university. He received the Governor General’s 125th Anniversary Medal in 1993, as well as Environment Canada's Ecocitizenship Award in 1992, and the Lifetime Achievement award in 1991. Rotary International/Dieppe Club presented him in 1994 with the Paul Harris Fellow award. He was recognized as Alumnus of the Year for 1994 by the Université de Moncton. He was a member of National Defense’s Environmental Protection Task Force. He was a founding member of the Nova Forest Alliance of Nova Scotia. He was a member of the scientific team reviewing PEI's fixed link impact on the environment. In 1996, he was awarded the Tree of Life Award from the Canadian Association of Forestry for his work on forest ecosystems. He served as a member of the National Round Table on Environment and the Economy Private Woodlot Task Force. He was the recipient of the 1997 Greater Moncton Excellence Award in Environment, and the Town of Dieppe honored him with the New Brunswick Heritage Day Outstanding Citizen Award in August 1997.

In 1998, Dr. LaPierre was awarded as an honorary citizen of the Town of Bouctouche for his work as Chair of the Bouctouche Dune Eco-tourism project. He was the recipient of two Professional Service Awards, one from Jacques Whitford Environmental Limited for his contributions on the Fixed Link Environmental Review Committee and the other from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency for his work on the Nuclear Waste Disposal panel. Dr. LaPierre was also awarded the Environmental Professional Award from the Greater Moncton Chamber of Commerce.


Artem Kaznatcheev said...

The focus on credentials over performance is one of the worst aspects of society today. It is one of the reasons that universities are falling apart under the load of students who are there "just to get a degree" and not to learn.

Also, since when is having a PhD even a requirement for science? It is definitely hard to get the right knowledge without completing a PhD, but what matters is your output. Philosopher Saul Kripke is a great example, he is a professor that only ever received a B.Sc.

As you noted, the issue I would be worried about here, is not the lack of biology degree, but the dishonesty. This also raises some questions about the hiring committee that appointed him.

Frank Beissel said...

This story also involves the pay wall. I am not a forestry or pesticide "scientist," but as a bioanalytical chemist, I can spot faked, weak, or robust sampling and data that does not reflect the capabilities of the instruments used. Unfortunately, the general public and I can't read his papers unless we pay the nearly $40 fee. I think the pay wall, and the overuse of industry specific lexicons, is a big reason that the general public misunderstands what science is and what scientists do.

bbk said...

I agree with Frank Beissel. "I think the pay wall, and the overuse of industry specific lexicons, is a big reason that the general public misunderstands what science is and what scientists do. "

George Jones said...

The NSERC Awards Search engine


goes back to 1991 (i.e., when LaPierre was 49), and I can find no record of an NSERC research grant for LaPierre. This seem strange for a full professor in Biology at a Canadian university.