Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Increase penalties for scientific fraud and obfuscation

Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-11-25

Regardless of your stance on the anthropogenicity of climate change, the urgency of any action required, or indeed the veracity (in terms of authenticity and representativeness) of the "leaked" emails from the Climate Research Unit (East Anglia) in the UK, there is at least one good thing that might come out of the mess.

The impact of scientific fraud might be properly recognized, and significantly greater punishments might be put on the books… indeed, perhaps in international law.

Scientific fraud is no longer a matter merely for common-room bitchiness or civil suits about careers, but can affect billions of lives and dollars.  If the world recognizes that, punishes scientists and their employers for fraud and failure to publish reasonable quality data that contradicts commercial or political interests, then science and public policy will take a major step forward.

It is well known that commercial interests skew the impressions given to clinicians by publishing questionable data, and refusing to open up data to studies that disprove the efficacy or safety of particular drugs.  Why would the health of a planet rather than persons not be subject to equal, if not more, misdirection by commercial interests?

The diagnosis and management of personal or planetary health is big business, be it for those who cause problems they want to deny, or for those that want money for remedies.  The potential for harm to national, international and personal budgets from a lack of as complete a set of accurate information is huge.

The impact can be of the same order of magnitude as the financial crisis caused by insufficient openness of data, public ignorance and greed.

If Madoff can get more than the rest of his lifetime spent incarcerated and assets seized for criminal activity with imaginary dollars, then scams by companies and individual scientists, to cause inaction or inappropriate action regarding the health of planet or populations should be even more severe.

Penalties for those lying or hiding such important information, together with legislation requiring publication of all studies that can have significant effects on government budgets or the health of many people, would be a Good Thing – not just incarceration, but return of all misbegotten funds and punitive damages, regardless of wherever those financial benefits have led, even if those benefits have passed down a generation, or, better still, as long as the longest total intellectual property claim – which some want set at a century.

I’m not saying that the death penalty should ever be used, but if execution-mad Texas has a death penalty on the books for a murder of a single victim, surely it’s not inappropriate for the same penalty to be exacted when intentional fraud or obfuscation of data can be shown to contribute to the deaths of many.

If that was the case, there’d be darn little Big Pharma research in Texas, but Big Oil cannot exactly move out until the oil runs dry!


2 Responses to “Increase penalties for scientific fraud and obfuscation”

  1. Jayjee said

    Should Lyndall Ryan, Henry Reynolds, and the like be jailed? I think that is excessive. Sacked maybe, but not jailed. This obsession you have with entangling an extremely authoritarian concept of the state in civil society is quite creepy. Stalin and Lysenko start to look mild in comparison.

  2. Dave Bath said

    I’m merely talking about penalties being proportional to impact of the crime (just as we do with “victim impact statements”).

    Data unpublished because it is unwelcome, or false data, can have a huge effect.

    In the recent CRU emails affair, there was data unpublished because various governments didn’t WANT it released (if it’s owned by a government, it should be open, unless it DIRECTLY involves national security threats and responses that don’t arise from nature). The other issue was climatologists not wanting to be hassled every day by irate climate skeptics, perhaps in a manner similar to the way medical researchers receive threats from extreme animal-rights activists.

    My own Dean (long may he rot in Hell) published data concocted out of thin air in perhaps the major academic scandal, in Australia at least, of the early 80s. Didn’t turn up to my graduation because I would have had to shake the bastards hand… forcing me from my favorite subject and potential supervisor (who was exposing him… many of us think he killed her by removing everything that made her life meaningful, lab and teaching privileges), and putting me with his cronies in a different subject.

    But, if scientific fraud or hiding important information has as big an effect on lives and economies as financial fraud, or hiding information the market would like, then why shouldn’t the penalties be similar… Madoff scale?

    And the Stalin/Lysenko thing was suppression of inconvenient data, and falsification of data to “prove” things to do with “capitalist/Darwinian lies” about crop yields when grown in different areas. Actually the Stalin/Lysenko thing isn’t that much different from Bush the Lesser toning down or hiding scientific reports from climatologists.

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