23 August 2010

After a fall

British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said:

A week is a long time in politics.

It can be a long time ago in science, too. Consider the case of Marc Hauser.

  • 10 August: The Boston Globe breaks the story that Marc Hauser is being investigated for scientific misconduct.
  • 19 August: The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on accusations, including details from one of the lab’s former members who “became convinced that the professor was reporting bogus data and how (Hauser) aggressively pushed back against those who questioned his findings(.)”
  • 20 August: USA Today publishes a memo from Hauser’s Dean confirming he had been found guilty of eight cases of misconduct. Later that day, Hauser admits to making mistakes and being responsible for them.

Can Hauser recover from this?

I don’t know. I have been unable to think of one scientist whose career has been able to continue uninterrupted after being found guilty of misconduct. I have distinct memories of one of my more senior colleagues saying that if you were ever caught, it would just be best to pack it in. Reputation is just too important.

Hauser might have a better chance than usual, however. Hauser is an extremely articulate person, both verbally and in print. If he is honest and forthright, he may be able to pull off an apology that allows his career to go forward. Such things are rare, but they have happened. The email USA Today published isn’t going to do it, though; he ought to write something more detailed if he wants to continue to run a lab.

If Hauser wants to continue to run original experiments, his publication process will not be like other people. He might have publish much more of his raw data, or go to unusual lengths to have them verified by independent labs. It might fall ineo the “more trouble than it’s worth” category for all concerned.

With several books to his credit and another in the works, Hauser could also step away from the lab and become a theoretician, synthesizer, and popularizer. I get the impression that his career was already on that trajectory. This may just accelerate the trend.

I, for one, shall be very curious to see what happens next.


bethann said...

Oh Zen, you eternal optimist. There's a big difference between Hugh Grant making a come back and someone who we actually rely on to be ethical, honest and a role model. Hugh, I fear, we rely on to merely have cute floppy hair and make self depreciating comments. I've never seen anyone comeback to science once they have fraud confirmed.

Zen Faulkes said...


I don't feel optimistic about Hauser's case. But what's kind of lurking in my mind is this from Janet Stamwedel:

"Permanent expulsion or a slap on the wrist is not much of a range of penalties."

I should have linked to that post in mine. It's interesting how little credit the science community gives for people to learn from mistakes.