A query on mentoring

February 24, 2012

One of the most fundamental roles the mentor plays in the development of a scientist is the introduction to the subfield. Making the trainee known to other scientists who make up the field. Publication is key. Proper crediting during seminars is another. Sending the trainees to meetings and introducing them around to the key players is good too.

As I said, in my view this is fundamental. Inescapable. Science is a human enterprise like any other and therefore interpersonal relationships matter. A lot. Even if they are not supposed to, we are unable to escape our biases related to “knowing” and “not knowing” other people.

My question for you Dear Reader, is whether you were Introduced to a subfield as a trainee. Did your mentor(s) make a specific point to enshroud you in a field? If you are a mentor, do you go out of your way to Introduce your trainees?

(If applicable, feel free to tell me that this is a mark of backwater, BunnyHopper dominated OldBoyzGirlz backslapping subfields and should be rigorously uprooted.)

Commenter Physician Scientist notes on a prior post that an individual scientist under suspicion for several dubious papers has retained his NIH funding.


This grant was RENEWED!!!!

Not quite. Or maybe the timeline is not quite what it seems. This would appear to be the most recent competing award in 2009. The budget is listed as ending in 2010 but then it continues onward under the “7R01” code in the next year (indicating a change of University) until 2014.

So the objection may not be all that direct if the news of these alleged frauds, misdeeds and/or actual retractions and corrections hadn’t been known when the grant was reviewed.

However, davebridges continues from my more general query about whether PIs should be viewed as innocent* until proven guilty of fraud.

innocent until proven guilty, but im sure reviewers sure can take into account historical accuracy of a lab. Better to renew a grant of a good lab with an instance sloppy record keeping (if thats the case) than a non-retraction lab whose data is never reproducible

This brings up a related, and more pernicious, issue. In my limited experience, “lab whose data is never reproducible” tends to be the stuff of rumor. Word around the campfire. Suspicion. Widespread far beyond those who might actually have tried seriously to replicate said data.

Correct or false, rarely is it a matter of well-explicated, scientific lack-of-evidence. Which, in itself, would still be problematic. There are many Nobel prizes and other fantastic scientific discoveries with a back story of “nobody believes his data”. At least at first, but that could have continued for years or decades. But if it is only suspicion? even if there are a couple of retracted papers….

Should the grant reviewers bust on an application on this basis? If there was one retracted paper would you refuse to issue a fundable score, even if the application had little to do with the topic of the retracted work?

What if you’ve read some internet clown detailing the “obvious” duplications of figures in papers but they’ve yet to be retracted or corrected? Would you mark the present application from that PI downward?

The flip side is that nobody deserves NIH funding. It is a privilege that is getting rarer all the time, going by the success rates. Seemingly the proposals that make it over the bar are held to the highest standard. As we’ve noted repeatedly, there are LOTS of great applications which are not going to get funded.

So why should we (the system) tolerate even a whiff of impropriety? Why not apply the one-strike and yer out principle?

As you know, we had one major ass retraction in the substance abuse fields in recent memory. Major because of the profile and public interest rather than because it had broad influence on the other scientists. I mean sure, maybe people were trying to replicate and follow up but the retraction came out within a year. Not too much damage was done**.

As far as I can tell Ricaurte kept his grants and kept getting more of them. Never paid any obvious price. Was this right? Should he have been busted out of the business for something over which we still do not know, and will never know, the extent of culpability. Should the reviewers simply moved on to a less tainted individual?

I don’t know. All I know is what I would do as a reviewer which is to try to be as fair as possible and to rely on my fellow panel members to reach consensus over how retractions or more suspicions should be viewed.

What would you do?

*from what I can tell in the chatter, this Chu case is limited to suspicion and a few retractions so far?

**yes, if you were the one wasting a year of work it sucked.