Opportunity for research funds


Today marks the end of 40 years of Col. Moammar Gadhafi ‘s ruling Libya. It is well-known that Gadhafi was a tyrannical dictator and ruled the country with iron fist. Hopefully the fall of Gadhafi leads to the beginning of new times, closing a bloody fight that lasted many months.

It is interesting to think that just last summer, Beyonce, 50 Cent, Mariah Carey and Nelly Furtado had performed for members of Gadhafi’s family. Of course, the artists were paid a hefty sum of money to entertain the clan.

Then beginning of this month, celebrities were invited to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s birthday celebration. Hillary Swank and Jean-Claude van Damme attended the lavish party drawing gobs of criticism. The Human Rights Foundation said “Ramzan Kadyrov is linked to a litany of horrific human rights abuses. Celebrities parting with him bolster his image and legitimizes a brutal leader and his regime’.
I understand the artists need to make a living entraining those who can afford to pay their fee, but is it appropriate for stars to perform for abusive leaders, linked to violations of civil liberties, killing and torturing?

What does this have to do with research ethics? To start with, since research funding is generally hard-to-find, what are the ramifications of working with funders with deep pockets? Are there ethical considerations? For example, what if a company wants to pay for us to play, but then not publish the data? At an extreme, what if Gadhafi wanted us to do research for his regime?

After bad publicity and criticism from human rights groups Mariah Carey, Beyonce and Nelly Furtado issued an apology and said they are donation the fee they received for charity. Hillary Swank also apologized for attending the bash, but when Human Rights Foundation asked what she was going to do with the money paid from the Chechnya’s leader, she didn’t give a clear answer.

Taking decisions based on ethics principles would save celebrities from embarrassment and bad publicity. We can all use ethics to guide our decisions. What do you think? Under what conditions will you take or refuse opportunities for research funding?

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Cautionary tale on export control: integrity of data

It used to be the case that researchers were expected to simply raise funds for compelling research, hire the right scientists to do the research and then present the data and publish.

The John Roth case is cautionary in that the rules have changed, at least for certain kinds of research.

At least in the US, there are export control rules that universities are still grappling with. If a faculty member has defense- or other national security-related projects and funding, he or she needs to be careful about who knows about the details of the study, has access to data and reports and the nationalities of students and postdocs working on the project. Moreover, researchers have to be careful not to take computer or any electronic storage devises with data subject to export control when traveling abroad.

The case of John Roth

John Reece Roth, 74 is the author of numerous papers and was a professor at the University of Tennessee. In 2003 Dr. Roth won a proposal to develop plasma actuators, a technology to be used in the Air Force. Although the contract had regulations forbidden foreign nationals to work on the project, a graduate student from China gained access to data and upon graduation, the Chinese graduate student was replaced by an Iranian national.

When consulting with the office of research, the division in charge of export control at the University of Tennessee, Dr. Roth explained that the subject of his research was part of public domain, therefore not export controlled. However, later on the office contacted Dr. Roth to say the data in question was indeed export controlled.

Ignoring the advice of the office of research, Dr. Roth took a laptop computer and a flash driver containing information about the project when traveled to China to lecture at universities about his project. It was never proved that anybody had accessed the information stored electronically; however both the Commerce and State Departments control the export of technology that is not available for the public.

Roth made serial mistakes involving violations of the Arms Export Control Act and is now facing prison time in what should have been golden retirement years from his university faculty job.

Morals of the story:

  1. Export control concerns are real and making a mistake can be very costly.
  2. Listen to your university administration’s advice.

To know more:

Office of Research, University of Tennessee.

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Calling for papers: Annals of Improbable Research

Image from the High Field Magnet Laboratory

During our academic careers, we researchers have (hopefully not many) papers rejected by journals. It is a terrible feeling, so much work and effort we put into our experiments and our peers fail to grasp our terrific ideas, condemning our paper to obscurity. So, next time you may want to submit your paper to the Annals of Improbable Research and you may even be nominated for the Ig Nobel prize!

Of course, the Annals of Improbable Research is a humorous magazine; but the Ig Nobel prize is real, albeit also humorous. The prize is awarded every year in early fall at Harvard University and it is presented by a group of Nobel laureates (the real ones!). The winners of Ig Nobel prizes have published papers on unusual subjects or just “trivial” matters that don’t seem worth doing research on. My favorite Ig Nobel winner paper is entitled ‘Chickens Prefer Beautiful Humans’, published by a group of scientists of the Stockholm University (Human Nature, vol. 13, no. 3, 2002, pp. 383-9). Raising chickens myself, I don’t see why this paper was chosen!

Apart from the humorous side, the Ig Nobel prizes “honor achievements that make people laugh, and then make them think.” And even though some experiments may sound silly and useless, they can have practical application. The winner of biology category in 2006, a paper showing the mosquito species that transmits malaria is equally attracted to the smell of cheese and human feet led to the development of mosquito baits using cheese. This bait has been used in African countries to control mosquito populations and thereby decreasing the incidence of malaria.

And to prove serious science may look simple and trivial, in 2000 Andre Geim won an Ig Nobel prize for his work using magnets to levitate frogs. Ten years later he won the real Nobel prize for his work with graphene.

To learn more and see a few Nobel laureates saying silly things and having fun, watch the 2010 Ig Nobel ceremony http://www.improbable.com/ig/2011/#webcastinfo.

To submit a paper to the Annals of Improbable Research, click here

To finish, a quote from Azimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’”

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Whose data are these?

A few months ago, the journal Epidemiology published a commentary and an editorial about data of sperm count in males in Denmark. These data were not yet published by the researchers who collected them, however they were available on the web site of the Danish National Board of Health, one of the sponsors of the study.

The team of researchers who collect the data requested the Board of Health to remove the report from its website. They want to be sure the data show a real trend. Besides, they believe that “scientists have the right to be the first to publish their own research”.

On the other side, the Board of Health stated that the program received large financial support from public funding and it was done in a public hospital and the Board believes the “sperm counts are public health data that belong in the public domain”.

How do the data ended up in a journal? The editor of the journal said heard about it from a young Danish researcher and his purpose was to “put the data in a better context than they were sitting on this website, with report only in Danish”.

Obviously, everybody agrees with the senior medical officer at the Board of Health who oversaw the report who said “the situation could have been handled more elegantly”.  Still, the question is: whose data are these?

To learn more:

Danish Sperm Counts Spark Data Dispute, on Science.

Sperm Counts, Data Responsibility, and Good Scientific Practice, on Epidemiology.

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Plagiarism and its consequences

Back in July, the president of the Temple University in Chattanooga, Danny Lovett,  resigned because of accusations of plagiarism on his book “Jesus is Awesome”. Mr. Lovett acknowledged he had inappropriately copied parts of his book some 15 years ago and he legally had settled the cause with the other author.

It makes me wonder what leads people that occupy important positions to act  unethically?

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The best ethical practices produce the best science

Research misconduct is serious and it has been happening frequently lately. Ethics can be a guide toward best practices.

Here is a fun video the students of Stewart Lab made about one of the ethic dilemmas a scientist may face.

What do you think?

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