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Scientists - like the rest of us I guess - do not always behave perfectly. They may sometimes cut corners or even occasionally commit fraud to keep their careers alive. The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has standards for appropriate conduct, and they've just updated them for the first time in 25 years. NPR's Richard Harris says the new standards focus not just on individual bad actors. They also consider bad incentives within the research environment.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: The scientific community has thought a lot over the years about what constitutes acceptable behavior among scientists. So when Robert Nerem, an engineering professor at Georgia Tech, was asked to update the National Academy's 1992 statement on the subject, he thought it would be fairly straightforward.
ROBERT NEREM: We hadn't had more than a couple meetings when we realized this wasn't a question of updating. This was a question of taking a brand-new look and a very different look.
HARRIS: Science had changed. It was global and interconnected. In the past few years, scientists also started realizing a lot of work done in one place couldn't be reproduced in another. That's how scientists validate their results. And the pressures on scientists are very different now. Brian Martinson, a committee member and researcher at the HealthPartners Institute in Minneapolis, says all that has led to broader concerns about scientific behavior.
BRIAN MARTINSON: We're not just talking about misconduct here, which is formally defined in the U.S. as fabrication of data, falsification or plagiarism, but we've recognized that there is a fuller range of behavior that we refer to as detrimental research practices.
HARRIS: These can include cutting corners, managing data poorly or not fully sharing what you've done so other scientists can reproduce your results. Nerem says this isn't a trivial problem.
NEREM: Sometimes these detrimental research practices can be as damaging as actual research misconduct.
HARRIS: Committee member C.K. Gunsalus, who heads the National Center for Professional & Research Ethics at the University of Illinois, agrees.
C K GUNSALUS: You've wasted the time of a lot of people, and time is an irreplaceable resource. And it's valuable and you use highly trained people with expensive educations using expensive equipment and working in labs. When you waste the time, you've done something really damaging.
HARRIS: And these problems are often driven by poor incentives throughout the scientific enterprise - funding shortages, what scientists need to do to get published or promoted. Gunsalus says it's not just about wayward researchers.
GUNSALUS: So in the colloquial, we've been fond of the bad apple narrative, and we're talking about switching to talking about the barrels and the barrel makers.
HARRIS: To address these systemic problems, the committee calls for the creation of a new advisory board focused on research integrity. This non-governmental board wouldn't punish bad actors, but it would help institutions identify issues and respond to them. Nerem says it's not clear just how big this problem actually is. Another thing they call for is more data.
NEREM: I don't think this is prevalent, but I think research misconduct and what we call in the report detrimental research practices occurs more often than any of us would like. And the research community has to step up to the plate to address this.
HARRIS: The report arrives at a time when many scientists feel that their enterprise is under siege in Washington with threats of massive budget cuts and diminished interest in science-based facts. Still, scientists are determined to recognize their shortcomings and work toward improving this valuable enterprise. Richard Harris, NPR News.
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