Adventures in Ethics and Science

Judging from some of the comments on my latest post about the Tonegawa/Karpova kerfuffle, it’s clear that there is not consensus about precisely what relationship a scientist should pursue (or avoid pursuing) with another scientist working on similar research. Part of the disagreement may come down to a difference of opinion about how important it is for scientists to share knowledge relative to protecting their own interests in the hyper-competitive world of academic science. Another part of the disagreement may come down to standards of similarity (i.e., when can we say that project X and project Y are essentially the same line of research?). Finally, there seems to be some disagreement about what motives we can impute to Tonegawa, especially in light of the recently revealed email exchange between them.


Some commenters have suggested that it is prudent for one to minimize collaboration, cooperation, and communication with anyone whose research is in “the same” area as one’s own. This is couched in the language of the need for a junior scientist to “demonstrate independence” in her research and so forth. But surely, we don’t want to say that one shouldn’t collaborate (or cooperate, or even communicate) at all with other scientists studying the same stuff. Taking this policy of “independence” to its extreme would seem to present a big impediment to the kind of communication necessary to build good scientific knowledge — especially if you’d like to do it efficiently. Also, such a policy would provide a big disincentive to share reagents or space, or to publish full details of experimental methods. This, of course, makes it harder to replicate experimental results, and harder to detect fraud.

The full-on adversarial-method approach to building scientific knowledge also supports the grad student vs. grad student model some scientists encourage within their own labs. I dare say the graduate school experience is sufficiently stressful without setting the grad students in a group against each other. (Where else will they learn how to be collegial.)

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What counts as “the same” research area? Who gets to make the call about whether two research agendas are the same or relevantly different? If you think your research is different from mine in important ways but I think they’re practically the same, how do we decide who’s right? (If there’s no overlap between different scientists’ research, whence replication, confirmation, and building on the results of others?)

Different experimental approaches seem like they would count as different research projects, even if they were directed at answering the same broad set of scientific questions. (Fans of robustness arguments would point out that we’re likely to learn a lot more about these questions through a multiplicity of approaches.)

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Why would a university hire more than one scientist in the same research area? Having some overlap seems like it has the potential to bring about productive collaborations. Hiring more scientists in an area you already have “covered” could also be a good strategy for maintaining dominance in a field when the senior scientist in that area retires or dies. And, scientists (like other academics) are frequently happier when they have people in their organization they can talk to about their work.

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Why am I not buying the hypothesis that Tonegawa was just being a good guy, looking out for Karpova’s interests? He seems rather more adamant than a canny academic scientist would be about someone else’s interests, but about as adamant as he would be about his own interests.

If the research is not sufficiently original for tenure, why not let the tenure committees sort that out? What harm comes to Tonegawa from having Karpova pursue research very close to his at MIT? (If her new technique pans out, it might contribute information that could further Tonegawa’s research — whether or not Karpova ends up getting tenure.) Why feel threatened by the prospect of a rising star making progress in his area? Is this a Highlander kind of thing, where Tonegawa thinks there can only be one star in his field? (If so, why did he make it sound like he’d be willing to collaborate with and/or mentor and/or communicate with Karpova if she pursued the same line of research someplace geographically removed from MIT?)

I admit, I haven’t done a mind-meld with the guy. But it stretches credulity to interpret the facts in evidence as definitively supporting his claim that he was just trying to help Karpova. In the meantime, it may be wise for the tribe of science to look at whether these competitive situations are really the best way to build better scientific knowledge.

Comments

  1. #1 per
    July 30, 2006

    the hypothesis that Tonegawa was just being a good guy…
    ok; let’s set out the alternative hypothesis, where T is evil. What should he do to really harm K ?

    Presumably, allow her to be hired to MIT, and then do everything in his power to deny her resources, whilst simultaneously encouraging collaboration, publishing before her and always as senior author, so she is seen as a weakling and never gets tenure.

    If she gets an appointment at HHMI, he has promised to support her. How can he possibly harm her there ? And how does that fit in with our hypothesis of EvilT ?

    What harm comes to Tonegawa from having Karpova pursue research very close to his at MIT?
    none. However, K could very easily lose out by having a massive group working on the same issues in the same department.

    I think the issue of how similar your research is to someone else is an interesting issue, and probably quite subjective. Can you give me examples of biology faculty who are competing directly with one another on the same research within the same department ? Is the comparative rarity of such examples telling you something about hiring decisions ?

    yours
    per

  2. #2 Abel Pharmboy
    July 30, 2006

    Professor, I’ve commented a few times across your several posts and, even as a man who has largely been blessed with female colleagues and trainees, I never exactly saw this episode as a gender issue, although it could be construed as such. I simply viewed this as an senior, hypocritical, sphincter with no self-confidence or acknowlegment of the support he received as a junior investigator now squelching the career of someone (male/female irrelevant to me) who he viewed as a threat to his increasingly diminishing stature in the field. In my limited understanding of their field, I could see Karpova raising the bar of Tonegawa’s program if he would have accepted her willingness to work together.

    I was blessed by the guidance of what we called The Four Generation Club, an informal gathering of faculty hired in each of the last four decades of my former institution. The 1970s member stressed to me that the goal of developing the institution was to actively hire people you felt were smarter than you, work with them, and encourage them to succeed. Of course, this was at a state academic medical center (i.e., not MIT, Harvard, nor a big state system like Michigan or California) that is outside of the top 10 USN&WR rankings, but certainly within the top 30. But, that is how you sustain excellence, create synergy, and build the future – if you truly care about the future of your institution.

    In my view, Tonegawa had no commitment beyond Karpova’s career development than he does in sustaining the stature and reputation of MIT. If I were an MIT senior faculty member or administrator, I’d point to some research buildings in Kobe that could benefit from the presence of a Nobelist so past his prime that he has to hold back faculty far junior to him. The debate here, I think, is what is the responisibility of senior faculty to themselves relative to the institution. As all faculty are asked to bring in more and more of their own salaries, and that of their entire staff, is it no surprise that senior folks find allegiance only to themselves and not their institutions?

    Finding myself a mid-career scientist (yes, I awoke screaming this morning with this realization), I continue to expect more from my senior colleagues and aim to hold myself to these standards if I survive in this business long enough to become “senior.” Please come over and kick my ass if you hear of me acting otherwise in 10-15 years.

    P.S./aside: As a fellow Bergen Cty native, I am impressed with your restraint in describing this episode as a “kerfuffle.” Back home, we’d call this a “goat fuck” or some other unsavory or politically-incorrect descriptor reflecting its repulsiveness – I understand that your Mom reads your blog (apologies to your Mrs. Mom-Free-Ride for my profanity) and I know that PharmMom hasn’t yet come over to your place, but might there be a more forceful word than “kerfuffle” to describe how unpleasant even male scientists find this whole situation?

  3. #3 Bill Hooker
    July 30, 2006

    Some commenters have suggested that it is prudent for one to minimize collaboration, cooperation, and communication with anyone whose research is in “the same” area as one’s own.

    I cannot adequately express how strongly I believe that these commenters have it exactly backwards. The attitude Tonegawa displays, while it may be commonplace in the academic snakepit (nice phrase, J), is profoundly anti-science. IMO. Modern science is moving, of necessity in this era of data overload and increasingly complex questions, to a modus operandi that emphasizes collaboration over competition. Dinosaurs like Tonegawa (seems to me to be) are going to be left behind, unable to compete with collaborative networks of open-science researchers. These networks will be filled with people no less smart or driven than Tonegawa who will outnumber him and his Type A/Highlander ilk, and won’t be wasting energy and time on competing. They’ll eat his lunch. The deep, beautiful irony is that this need not happen: he could simply join them; but if I read him right he won’t.

  4. #4 hypatia
    July 30, 2006

    ok; let’s set out the alternative hypothesis, where T is evil. What should he do to really harm K ?

    Presumably, allow her to be hired to MIT, and then do everything in his power to deny her resources, whilst simultaneously encouraging collaboration, publishing before her and always as senior author, so she is seen as a weakling and never gets tenure.

    Actually I see another alternative. Let her be hired at MIT. And then NOT do everything in his power to deny her resources – in fact, he could support her, share resources and students, encourage collaboration and submit grants together. Presumably this would set things up so that she would be so inclined to do the same for those who come after her.

    I think the thing that struck me as difficult/inappropriate about his letters was that in one paragraph he says that he could not ever see himself collaborating with her because their interests overlap too much and in the next paragraph he says something about how junior faculty will only succeed with the support of senior faculty providing reagents and start up support. This seemed like a bit of a disconnect to me.

    I am a junior faculty member at a university with two senior people who work in my area. One of the challenging parts has been establishing independance. But not because people keep pulling the rug out from under me. Rather because they are so happy to work with me and have their students work with me (I could say some negative things about that related to too many students/poor supervision) that I get overwhelemed and run out of time for my own stuff. Suffice to say, I am following this conversation carefully because I think the question of independance will bear on my own tenure decision. And I think the question of support from other faculty will bear on how I treat new faculty members in the future.

  5. #5 Pinko Punko
    July 30, 2006

    per, the hypothetical “truly evil Dr. T” meaningless. Just because his behavior does not match up with something archetypically evil doesn’t excuse it.

    He could have been stridently against her on the record to the hiring committee. This anti-competitive/anti-collaborative stance would have been selfish, but fine. He went outside the bounds of ethical behavior by using his power as not only the head of his own lab, but as the head of an Institute, which he seems to view as his own private empire within MIT. It certainly isn’t this, and if they allow him to run it so, they should be embarrassed.

    He could even refuse to talk to her once she arrived is she were hired against his wishes. He could even exert his will so that others treat her shabbily once she arrived. The problem is this would have been much harder for him to do once she was his actual colleague. So much easier for him to dispose of her immeadiately.

  6. #6 David Harmon
    July 31, 2006

    As I said in a previous comment, I think any blowback he gets from MIT for this, won’t be on “ethical” or “courtesy” grounds, it’ll reflect the point that he’s openly defied the hiring committee for his parent institution.

    In any case, both cooperation and competition can get “out of hand” in their respective extremes. Part of managing a scientific institution (and perhaps any other) is balancing the two factors, to stay in the productive region between the extremes.

  7. #7 per
    July 31, 2006

    Let her be hired at MIT. And then NOT do everything in his power to deny her resources – in fact, he could support her, share resources and students, encourage collaboration and submit grants together.
    I am following this conversation carefully because I think the question of independance will bear on my own tenure decision.
    The inference of what you are saying is that junior faculty collaborating with senior faculty can have an adverse effect on tenure decisions; maybe this phenomenon is worse at MIT- I don’t know. I am not saying this is a good thing or defending it. But it would seem legitimate to point out that it is so, and I suspect you have a similar concern.
    yours
    per

  8. #8 Roberta Millstein
    July 31, 2006

    There seems to be some “either-or” thinking going on in some of the comments, namely, that Tonegawa isn’t acting unethically (and therefore, he is acting ethically) because he could have acted worse (allowed Karpova to go to MIT and then quashed her career). But just because he didn’t do the most unethical thing possible in this situation doesn’t mean that he didn’t act unethically. I agree with Pinko Punko: “So much easier for him to dispose of her immeadiately.” It’s the safer route to protect his own ego.

  9. #9 per
    July 31, 2006

    per, the hypothetical “truly evil Dr. T” meaningless.

    He could even refuse to talk to her once she arrived is she were hired…
    oh, I don’t know, I think that the construct helps us examine his motives. If he wanted to allow a bad situation to develop, he would allow her to be hired, accept that she was a competitor and simply look after his own self-interest. He has, after all, no obligations to K. This might result in all sorts of problem for K.

    However, T has not done this; he has explicitly set out the sorts of problems that he foresees, advised her she would be better off elsewhere, and offered her his support. This seems to be straightforward, and much more akin to good Dr T, rather than EvilT.

    To her credit, K thanked T for his openness and agreed.

    Just out of interest, PP, what is your relationship with Karpova ? You seem so very emotionally involved in this debate, that I would freely guess that you have a direct involvement with one of the protagonists ? So which one ?

    yours
    per

  10. #10 Pinko Punko
    August 1, 2006

    per,

    T did what was the easiest path for him. It is easier to have her not exist than to exist, the goal is the same. per, I know all of the protagonists at some level, and don’t be disingenuous, I stated all my cards at 3B, in the original post. “Out of interest”- I think not. Anyhoo, the collaboration/independence card is one that can be played both ways, and everyone knows how it works. T was not saying anything that everyone involved didn’t already know. This is a non-starter.

    Also, you don’t treat the Godfather with disrespect, and you aren’t impolite when it appears your job and dream career are on the line. K’s language reflects her tact and clear head. You wouldn’t agree per, but once again, I have talked to many many scientists and they all expressed shock at the content of the e-mails, and I feel confident that is what K felt as well. Would she have had to tell him to eat it for her words not to signify acquiescence to his bad behavior?

    Toodles everyone, we’re having the same argument somewhere else-

  11. #11 per
    August 1, 2006

    It is easier to have her not exist …
    so why offer to support her at another institution ? He cannot stop her being a competitor at another institution. The motives you are ascribing to him don’t make sense.

    K’s language reflects her tact and clear head.
    it seems that you just ignore what the words say and focus on the “hidden meanings”; let me remind you of K’s words:
    I really appreciate your kind words and your openness about the issue at hand….. Once again, I tremendously value your openness on this subject.
    K had all sorts of formal ways of replying to T. She didn’t have to thank him for his openness, and she didn’t have to continue a confidential discussion which would later be leaked.

    I have talked to many many scientists and they all expressed shock…
    errr, this is the same point I was making last time. I suspect that you are quite emotionally involved in this, and you have been quite ambiguous about how you are involved with the protagonists. It may be that you are protecting your job, which I fully understand, but the lack of clarity doesn’t engender much trust in your objectivity.

    Given your obvious emotional attachment to the issue at hand, I am quite certain that if we met personally, even i would have the empathy to register to you just how shocked I was at the emails.
    yours
    per

  12. #12 per
    August 1, 2006

    In the meantime, it may be wise for the tribe of science to look at whether these competitive situations are really the best way to build better scientific knowledge.
    without waxing lyrical, it is probably appropriate to look at the government’s funding system. Funds for the department come with research grants; which are provided on three-five year contracts, which must be renewed. The only way institutions will survive financially is if they ruthlessly weed out those who do not bring in the research funds.

    It is tempting to shoot MIT; but MIT is simply reacting to the tune played by government. If collegiality and collaboration got better research income, MIT and everyone else would be doing it. Sadly, the model which works is by being ruthlessly selective for those who can demonstrate their own ability to pull in research funds.

    yours
    per

  13. #13 Bill Hooker
    August 2, 2006

    If collegiality and collaboration got better research income, MIT and everyone else would be doing it. Sadly, the model which works is by being ruthlessly selective for those who can demonstrate their own ability to pull in research funds.

    Do you have any evidence for this? For instance, show me a lab/group that tried the collegiality/collaboration method and failed. I don’t think the attempt has been widely made (yet).

    Just because dog-eat-dog is the most common method in use today does not indicate whether it is optimal. “If there is a better method, it will be adopted” is simply not how human systems work, in my experience.

    Disclaimer: I’m a postdoc, and if I am going to move up the foodchain it is going to be by emphasizing collaboration over competition. I believe that open science (open access + open data) is the future of research, and if I’m wrong it will mean I’ll need to find another career. So, those are my biases!

  14. #14 per
    August 3, 2006

    we are probably arguing past each other. Even the most competitive departments engage in collegiality and collaboration, and can be the stronger for this.

    I think the key issue is the ruthlessness with which people are discarded, if they are not pulling in money in their own right. It would be very easy to hide someone’s ineffectiveness by pairing them with a superstar, but before long, the department is staffed by the mediocre. People who aren’t pulling in much money by themselves are then extremely vulnerable to fits of pique by the high-flyers (and apparently, it does happen).

    i am quite clear that there are financial rewards for bringing in grant money. Institutions look after the bottom line, and are extremely responsive to anything that brings in more money. If making soft but collegial appointments worked, that would be rewarded.

    I appreciate you are a postdoc; but human nature hasn’t changed over the last 30 years. The people you see as senior professors were just like you, once.

    yours extremely depressed :-(
    per

  15. #15 Bill Hooker
    August 4, 2006

    Per: we probably are, indeed, arguing past each other. I am not trying to make a case for “soft but collegial appointments”, or to claim that academia is not a snakepit. :-)

    I recognize that some competition is healthy and necessary; I just think that the system as it stands is addicted to the stuff. My hope is that one can compete for necessarily limited funds more efficiently by NOT competing so ruthlessly with one’s peers, but rather by organizing networks of capable collaborators.

    On the other hand, I too become depressed if I focus too long on the incentives that currently exist, because you are right to say that they reward ruthlessness and there is a great deal of inertia in the system. I do not anticipate an easy road — indeed, if I were asked to bet, I would bet against my ever making it to tenure.

    But I am having fun trying, and if I fail it will be on my own terms. Hier steh’ ich; ich kann nicht anders.

  16. #16 windy
    August 7, 2006

    Would she have had to tell him to eat it for her words not to signify acquiescence to his bad behavior?

    This comment from AK does seem like an ironic jab to me:

    “It is unlikely that I could live with myself if I knew that I contributed to escalation of such a conflict.”
    :D

    So perhaps she told him to eat it but in a classy way.

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