Thursday, 9 January 2020

Caesar's wife

Julius Caesar divorced his wife Pompeia in 63 BCE because she had been present when a lusty young patrician Publius Clodius Pulcher sneaked into her residence dressed as a woman with the intention of seducing the Great Man's missus. Despite there being no evidence of wrong-doing by Pompeia, Caesar divorced her, according to Suetonius "Quoniam meos tam suspicione quam crimine judico carere oportere" = because my family must carry themselves above suspicion let alone caught in criminal conversation. Clodius was murdered by an agitator political rival call Titus Annius Milo about 10 years later. Cicero defended Milo in court with a splendid piece of rhetoric Pro Milone which was widely distributed and continues to plague Latin students who are required to read and translate the 2000 y.o. polemic.

A  couple of scientific sketchiness stories surfaced since New Year. Here is one:
Only one of the three people in the montage above has won a Nobel Prize in the last couple of years. One of them, under implicit pressure to deliver, found an interesting result in the lab shared it with their line-manager, who presented it to the Boss. The three of them wrote up the story, and sent it in to Science - the premier US peer-reviewed general science journal - where it was quickly published. It helped that one of the authors had a Nobel gong. That happened nearly a year ago and was presumably a cause for celebration in the lab. Over Christmas they must have wanted to do a follow-up or something, but found that ". . . the results were not reproducible, and the authors found data missing from a lab notebook".  You can, with 20/20 hindsight, play spot the perp among the LinkedIn mugshots above if you are judgemental; but to me they all look within the normal range. Then again attributes like ethical compass, carefulness, attention to detail don't leap out from a pixellated passport photo.

What to do? What would you do?
  •  You could hope that nobody would notice: the presentation of the data [even if made up] were internally consistent enough to convince the editors at Science and 2 or 3 independent referees, after all. The results had the ring of truth. 
  • Or you can 'fess up, call Science and ask them to retract / suppress the paper. The Boss chose the latter, honest, option with a tweet (and an awkward phone call to Science) "I was a bit busy when this was submitted, and did not do my job well".
That's nice because it shoulders some of the blame for the debacle rather than throwing the most junior member of the trio under the bus. The trouble is that everyone at the top of my profession is way too busy for mental health and ethical integrity to flourish. Scientists do not grow to fill their lab-coats if the boss is unable to trust them to deliver. The technology in the lab has probably moved on so that the Boss probably could not work the kit themselves, so they have to delegate. And success in science accrues to those who can recruit a few good pairs of hands to do the lab-work, while the Boss applies for more money to keep the waggon rolling; presents their latest findings on the international conference circuit. Any big successful Nobel lab will also have a layer of middle managers = post-docs to whom is delegated the writing of papers and grant applications [at least early drafts] and supervision of beginners. Those persons have a key role in training and setting standards in the lab and are surely normally distributed as to ability and effectiveness even after two science degrees and several-to-many years of experience.

Who feels crap now?  Well all three of the faces above. The two junior people probably don't have a career in science anymore, so that's a bummer. For the Boss, there are no sanctions for did not do my job well and eeee but we do love a Nobel Prize winner. From Twitter, all the responses I saw were positive and supportive - shucks that's tough, I'm sorry for your troubles - rather than condemnatory. The editor and the referees who midwifed the miscreant Science paper should be feeling crap too because they were too credulous and blinded by the glitter of the Nobel Prize. But I doubt if there are any sanctions for them, either.

And what's all that lead in about Pompeia about?  Getting a Nobel Prize is not quite random, but there are lots of contributors who don't make the cut. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, for example. But having got the gong, life gets dialled up a notch. Not necessarily easier, but people listen to you even if you're being daft or cranky [Linus Pauling] ; you get a lot of free gigs and inhabit a lot of hotel suites. You owe it to the people who are fêting and feeding you to be above suspicion.

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