A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Stand back - I have a license to science!

Recently I was giving a talk on bad science / medicine journalism to the lovely people of Dublin Skeptics in the Pub, which you can download in PDF format here if you're so inclined. The discussion that came up afterwards was interesting and something popped up that deserves some debate - should there be a scientific license ?

This would be something akin to the medical register rules that GPs are expected to abide by - a document from an independent panel that guarantees both the holder's credentials and more importantly holds the owner to scientific integrity. This independent panel would further have the ability to strike off a scientist who abused their position. Sound outlandish ? Perhaps, but since it generated interesting discussion from the scientists at the talk, let's discuss it further...

A (terrible) artists impression of what a science license might look like....

For the purposes of this argument, let's define two important terms

Scientist : Any person engaged in active research and / or science teaching, including medical researchers / medical doctors. 

Research : Investigation into any scientific / medical phenomena utilising the scientific method.

Scientists are in a strange position - they investigate the world around us, a world that is often contrary to expectation. In some quarters and countries, they rank among the most trusted and are afforded an element of trust - an IPSOS poll found that 71% of respondents thought scientists were likely to tell the truth. A Nature survey also found 84% polled ranked scientists among the most trusted group on the planet, though given it came from Nature readers selection bias may be an issue. Yet if we contrast this with the scorn poured on evolutionary biologists and climate scientists in certain sectors of the ostensibly developed world an interesting dichotomy arises; that apparent trust can turn to overt negativity.  Scientists are then in a delicate position - they do research, and sometimes the findings of that research is at odds with people's personal biases and people may not understand nor like this - That is a huge issue but not one we're interested in right now. Let's assume that over all, scientists are generally a trusted group.

Trust me! I'm a scientist!

Even to other scientists, trust is implicit in the scientific peer review process. We assume that people will not fake data, or twist findings and thankfully the vast, vast majority do not. But it has happened, and when it does, it sets research back. or wastes precious research time by making other groups examine these claims. Here's just a few cases that spring to mind...

  • In 2002 Jan Hendrik Schon was fired from Bell Labs for faking semi-conductor data. At this stage he was publishing about a paper every 8 days in leading scientific journals, a phenomenal amount.
  • In 2005 celebrated Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk was found to have falsified data and engaged in overt deception by claiming he had succeeded in producing a human clone.
  • In 2002, Andrew wakefield wrongly and knowingly claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism for financial gain, prompting mass panic and needless deaths of children.

These were clear cases of scientific deception for career, financial or personal gain. Science is a self-correcting process and these frauds were exposed in due course, but each prompted serious questions over how they manipulated the system and indeed, how much time (and in some cases, lives) they wasted in the process. Worse still is when a renegade scientist manipulates this trust with a non-expert group, attempting to use their status to push nonsense. Sadly, even if the credentials are real, it does not guarantee the veracity of the speaker - Dr. Deepak Chopra, Dr. Joe Mercola and Dr. Mehmet Oz all spring to mind as genuine titles spewing fake information. They are fully aware that too many people view science as something mysterious akin to an arcane religion practiced in Ivory towers by academics, and are all too happy to exploit those very same people who treat their pronouncements with almost religious fervour as if their status as a scientist or doctor means they are beyond reproach. Just look at Gillian McKeith obtaining a fake PhD just so she could hide behind the title of doctor and give her quackery the impression of depth and it becomes apparent that it is possible to abuse one's scientific position.

Could a scientific license maintain a higher standard from those qualified and also rid the world of degree mills and fake PhDs ? Furthermore, could it stop the contempible and intellectually shallow trick of someone holding a PhD in a certain field pretending to a be an authority on a different one, and hoping the public don't notice ? This happened only recently in the shamefull Wall Street Journal letter slamming climate change as a myth, signed by scientists - all of whom were not climatologists or even field experts and had vested interests for doing so.

Ivory Tower - Not nearly as impressive as it sounds. Check and mate.

It's worth reiterating the VAST majority of scientists would never engage in such appalling practice, but never the less we live in an age when science is simultaneously attacked and praised in roughly equal measure. We just have to look at the phenomena of climate change deniers constantly trying to smear scientists publishing on climate change to see but one example. The only recourse left to scientists is to have utter integrity, which the most do uphold, but under massive pressure things can be fudged. A recent BMJ poll reported 13% of researchers knew of colleagues that had fabricated or edited data for a paper. This is likely due to the massive and increasing pressure to publish or perish but of course this isn't an excuse. Predictably, once this poll was released every quack under the sun seized on this as evidence the scientific establishment is hiding the truth from them about Global warming, evolution, alternative medicine, killer bees, Elvis's current location, and presumably why people who comment on Daily Mail articles find their cousins were so damn attractive.

That's rich coming from a source that advocates vitamin D as a cancer cure...

So perhaps if there was a system of scientific integrity that all practicing scientists were sworn to abide by then such problems could be massively reduced ? About this I'm not sure, so let's see the Pros and Cons.

  • Register would clearly demark ethical obligations of scientists.
  • Could dismiss scientists in contempt of charter.
  • Clear guidelines for scientists to operate under.
  • May improve public perception of science.
  • Potentially very cool membership card
  •  Difficult to enforce.
  • May be overkill - academic disgrace usually enough.
  • Potential for abuse and wrongful censure.
  • May foster mistrust among researchers.
  • Yet another bloody document / cost

So my question to scientists and lay people out there is do you think a scientific license would be a good idea, or a bad one ? I have no position on it (though I do like carrying various forms of ID and want to use science as a verb...) but I'd be eager to hear what others think. Feel free to click the poll and give some feedback!

Do you think scientists should have a charter and require a license to practice ?


  1. How exactly would the charter operate?

    What would it assess across the multitudinous fields that encompass science?

    What does it achieve that ethics committees and the ongoing process of scientific enquiry deal with already?

    Wouldn't it be better to reform systems such as the REF and attitudes of depts. and Unis that pressure scientists into a "publish or perish" mindset?

    It would also be good if there were more journals devoted to replications of previous work and negative results.

    If you had those then there would be a lot less pressure to commit scientific fraud (a problem that has never really appeared to be that grand on the whole anyway).

  2. You're absolutely right - I think pressure to publish can lead to (1) poor quality research and (2) deception. And I agree the scientific fraud issue is not that huge, but there remains a potential for abuse and we simply have to operate to a high standard as everytime we slip up it becomes fodder for cranks and quacks.

    That said, I think you're onto something - there is a wealth of research into publician bias on negative findings if I recall correctly. Essentially negative findings, while equally important as positive ones tend to get rejected more. A journal for retesting seems like a damn good idea to me.

    Any ideas how we can counter the university / institute publish or perish mindset ?

  3. I saw someone moot a similar idea for programmers in the USA of late. The logic was that as many peoples' lives rely on the abilities of a programmer as they do on a doctor's and thus it should be regulated in the same way. I'm not sure how I feel about that exactly, but I think it'd be a damn sight harder to enforce.

    Also since you mentioned McKeith (even though I'm sure you've seen it): http://cdn.blisstree.com/files/2011/11/gillian-mckeith-vs-nigella-lawson-490x415.jpg

    The university problem is an interesting one. In my failed attempt to get a degree from DCU I spent far far far too long there. In that time I saw lab after lab after lab be repurposed from undergraduate students to postgraduate students labs and offices. I guess (not having the slightest jot of proof) at the end of the day publication is where the profit is for the institution, and universities are just the same as any other business now and need to have a pretty bottom line.

  4. Disclaimer - Just added an extra line about degree mills, as someone messed me asking if that would be something a science license could help regulate. It might also stop person with a PhD in field X pretending to be an expert in field Y, such as the recent shameful letter published in the Wall St Journal re: climate change.

  5. I think it's a tough one. By your definition, it seems that I wouldn't be a candidate for such a license, since I don't currently participate in lab research. Indeed, I'm pretty sure most people wouldn't consider me a scientist because I'm not in a research lab. I do however hold a degree in science, and am currently studying for a masters in same. I know of people who received degrees at the same time as me, and who went into research, whose opinions I would be less inclined to trust (without my own research) as a result of their under-performance during study.

    Though I can see why it's valuable to point out relevant (and irrelevant) qualifications when debating certain topics, I would also argue that there are people who don't fall into those groups who, nevertheless, have an excellent grasp on the scientific method, the processes, and even particular subject areas, for example. And while a scientist may not be teaching or researching in a particular field, they may have an interest in that field, and be very well informed in that area. I wonder if such a licence/charter might make people feel like they are restricted to comment in their own area and nothing beyond - certainly, as you discussed, there have been occasions where scientists have commented on things which they have no knowledge of, though I would hope that these people are, and remain in, the minority.

    Perhaps, rather than an exclusive licence, a policy for inclusion of qualification details/research areas would be better - it would show if people were commenting outside their area of expertise without excluding people from doing so. I know that for comments on the BMJ site you have to declare a few things, such as job title, and conflicts of interest. There is nothing to stop people lying here, but then, there is little to stop people lying in most places...

    I'm still thinking this one over, I'll probably comment again later when I've pinned down a few more of these thoughts.

  6. Very good point Jen - I would hate to make science elitist, and I should have qualified that; it would more be a charter for those participating in research. For those with higher level qualifications, it would be a promise not to abuse those titles.

    Like I said, I'm still unsure but there must be some way to prevent people abusing the system of trust that science entails ?

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  9. The underlying idea of a licence to operate at PhD level in sciences stemmed from the existing licencing rolled out for medical doctors in countries such as Ireland, the UK, and America. It’s a simple idea, but actually quite useful. For example, there’s a Chiropractic not far from where I currently live, see http://rathmineschiropractic.com/home. One of the practitioners, Dr Michael Greer, offers a “variety of treatments” including one for being born!

    A quick search of the medical registry allows me to see Michael Greer is not registered with the Medical Council of Ireland, http://www.medicalcouncil.ie/Registration/Check-the-Register/, and therefore is no more qualified than the guy stacking shelves in Tesco to perform any medical treatment. I have no idea what this guy is qualified in, and of course I could probably find out with a few Google searches. He may even be a legitimate medical doctor, but that’s the whole point of the medical register. Regardless of his qualifications, he is not registered with the Irish Medical Council, and therefore I can make an informed decision to not be “treated” by him. As it happens, I would never use any chiropractor, or any alternative medical practitioner, but there is a value in being able to see who is, and who is not medically trained.

    In principle, the same is true for science. Science too has its quacks, and a simple database of all those qualified to PhD level, with their institutions and professional backgrounds would make it easier to establish who is legitimately trained and qualified, and who has obtained their qualifications via correspondence courses from non-accredited universities. So, what’s the potential usefulness of this proposal? The main advantage of this system is the ability to quickly check someone’s credentials allows people to determine how much weight, if any, they should attribute to experts put forward by the media. In addition, this system could play a role in allowing academic institutions, and private sector industries to determine the professional integrity of a prospective job applicant more easily. Of course it’s possible for these institutions to perform their own background checks, so there is no major advantage here. All this would do is shift the responsibility from many organizations to one centralized organization for each country. However, at least this way you can be sure everyone has been checked at least once.

    So, at its most basic, the system I would propose is that any PhD graduate of science is provided with a licence upon graduation. The licence doesn’t stipulate anything other than this person has a clean record in terms of professional behaviour, much the same way a medical licence does. As for exactly what constitutes professional behaviour is open for intense discussion, but the most obvious example of professional misconduct I can think of is manufacturing data, and if we wanted to keep it simple that would be the only criteria for losing your licence. Sleeping with your PhD students however, while unprofessional, does not necessarily invalidate any of your research, and therefore should not be considered as inappropriate professional behaviour that would result in losing your licence.

    As for what is achieves that ethics committees and peer review don’t already? Well, not all researchers need ethics committee approval for research, and while peer review probably will catch you in the end, and generally is the end of your academic career I’m not confident the general public follow the professional careers of many scientists. Therefore, the major advantage of this system is as a means of telling who you should consider a legitimate source of information when it comes to popular science media. To ability to state that Dr. X no longer has their licence is something the general public will understand in much the same way as medical licences. It’s true however, than in professional circles, there are systems already in place, and it’s therefore less useful.

  10. I like the idea of a research licence to be honest. It's been mentioned, but it would be difficult to to dismiss the opinion of someone(say a 'citizen scientist') who may not hold a formal qualification in a field but might as well be considered an expert in it.

    Astronomy is a fine example of a field where an individual could educate themselves to a point where they could conduct cutting edge research on a topic.

    To somewhat back up my point, another factor to consider is that we live in the Information Age. Everything you need to specialise in a certain field is available either online or in the thousands upon thousands of academic texts available on Amazon or somewhere like the Oxford press.

    So what does that mean for the licence? Obviously some governing body would be need to be setup. Do you set it up on an International, regional, or national basis?

    I would propose an International body with a field specific categorisation of licences.

    However, the question of being an expert without a phD needs to be answered. Would it not be intuitive for such an organisation to offer standardised exams in different subjects of science? Consider it a scientific benchmark. Basically: "If you want to talk on this subject, we're going to benchmark your knowledge against these tests."

    People could pay to sit the tests, which would bring in income for the organisation to cover administration, and all other usual organisational costs.

    Also, wouldn't such an organisation be a huge help to the general public? Consider myself. I'm studying physics and propulsion engineering in my spare time(both go hand in hand really. Mix some chemistry in there for good measure).

    I bought two books off Amazon and am studying away, testing myself with the questions in the books, but also with college exam papers I find online. Would it not be a huge morale boost for someone such as myself to be able to apply to an accredited organisation, and be able to sit an exam to prove to myself that I now have an understanding of the knowledge I've spent so long studying? Also, one could use these tests to apply into postgraduate positions(similar to something like the ETS Physics GRE).

    I think there is a big plus there for having a scientific licence, and the knock on effects could be fascinating. Not just for currently qualified scientists, but for the general public out there who have a hunger to answer the questions of natures phenomena. And hey, if you studied hard for it, why shouldn't someone be able to approach an organisation of scientists and be able to prove yourself?

    It could be something like: 'For the scientists, by the scientists'. Like an open ended, public facing organisation allowing accredation of citizen scientists.

    I'm all for the licence, and it would definitely spawn a whole shift in how modern day science is done. I think it could work...

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