Lack of transparency in ERC funding decisions, by Shravan Vasishth

Lack of transparency in ERC funding decisions, by Shravan Vasishth

Academic research is dependent on funding, and funding agencies, both public and charity ones, play a crucial gatekeeper function in deciding who will go on to continue researching or even working in science, and who will not. With great power comes great responsibility. Unfortunately, funders traditionally end up serving the interests of select elite scientists by confusing the needs of those with the greater good of science as such. Money is dumped on the biggest pile, either to established star researchers or to their privileged academic scions. In this zero-sum game of science funding, many early career researchers see their grant applications rejected and are forced out of academia. The logic seems to be that this research proletariat would have spent it on booze and candy anyway, while the high elite will be investing it wisely to produce great science. Or whatever the funders, advised by that very elite, perceive to be great science. The guest post below by Shravan Vasishth, professor for psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics at the University of Potsdam, Germany, tells of a peer reviewer experience of his when it hit against such attitude from the most prestigious EU research funder, the European Research Council (ERC).

Continue reading “Lack of transparency in ERC funding decisions, by Shravan Vasishth”

Post-publication peer review of a multimillion-dollar-heavy Nature paper, by Ana Pedro

Post-publication peer review of a multimillion-dollar-heavy Nature paper, by Ana Pedro

The Portuguese cancer researcher Sonia Melo has now achieved the status of a zombie scientist. After an internal investigation which records are kept secret, she was cleared of all suspicions of scientific misconduct and re-installed as group leader at the Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde (I3S) in Porto (see my report here). This despite an impressive PubPeer record of data integrity concerns, and despite the fact that the European research society EMBO revoked Melo’s Installation Grant funding after having determined problems with her publications. EMBO nevertheless stick to their decision, but Melo’s Portuguese funders like Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT) apparently see absolutely no need to reconsider their support, certainly not after the I3S whitewashing. Melo previously had to retract a paper (Melo et al, Nature Genetics, 2009) for data manipulations, her other works were however found not problematic by the I3S commission. In two papers in Cancer Cell (Melo et al 2010 and Melo et al 2014), the alleged duplications were apparently proven not to be duplications. As I learned, this was probably because while the top part of the gel images indeed did look suspiciously similar, the lower parts were clearly different. A possibility of digital image splicing was not considered, as it seems. In any case, even if the top bands are indeed the same, it doesn’t really matter. Cell editorial offices made on several occasions perfectly clear that data integrity is not one of their top concerns.

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From Melo et al, Cancer Cell, 2014. Cannot be a duplication, according to I3S. Source: PubPeer

Continue reading “Post-publication peer review of a multimillion-dollar-heavy Nature paper, by Ana Pedro”

Pontus Boström: cheater carousel in Sweden

Pontus Boström: cheater carousel in Sweden

Sweden is a tolerant country, which is a very good thing. Unfortunately, sometimes this Swedish tolerance seems ill-advised. Dishonest scientists caught faking data are happily given another chance and fat funding, like the case of the diabetes researcher Pontus Boström shows.

This scientist was found to have fabricated data during his PhD studies with late Sven‐Olof Olofsson at the University of Gothenburg, and went afterwards to publish a seminal paper in Nature with the biggest godfather of the diabetes research field, Bruce Spiegelman. Also this high-impact study turned out to be irreproducible by other researchers and a likely artefact of erroneous antibody use. Yet due to his impressive publishing record and unwavering support of the mighty Spiegelman, Boström was invited to head a group leader position at several Swedish universities, while he settled on the best offer by the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at the prestigious Karolinska Institutet (KI) in Stockholm, supported by the elite EU funder ERC.  All despite his previous convictions of research misconduct in Gothenburg and ensuing retractions of two meeting abstracts, which were at all times perfectly known to all parties involved. Continue reading “Pontus Boström: cheater carousel in Sweden”

The 3rd editor and failure of ‘proper channels’

The 3rd editor and failure of ‘proper channels’

A scientist finds serious measurement errors in three publications of his former collaborators. He alerts the journals and makes his concerns public, openly under his own name. The errors would make obsolete several key observations of an established German neurophysiology lab. Indeed, one journal retracts the criticised paper, another issues a correction describing the affected results as “not reliable”. The Editor-in-Chief of the third journal however accuses the whistle-blower of unspecified conflict of interests and retracts his already published letter to editor, in the process tainting his reputation with a public insinuation of research misconduct.

Here is this story in detail. Continue reading “The 3rd editor and failure of ‘proper channels’”

Bruno Lemaitre on Science and Narcissism

Bruno Lemaitre on Science and Narcissism

Bruno Lemaitre is professor at the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, where he works on insect immunity. He is also a personal friend of mine, this is one of the reasons I wish to introduce here his new book on narcissism in science. Disclaimer: I also received a one-time payment from Bruno for my help with the text and editing of his book, titled: An Essay on Science and Narcissism: How do high-ego personalities drive research in life sciences?”

The book and its order options are introduced on Bruno Lemaitre’s website.

Lemaitre’s discovery of the Toll-receptor won the 2011 Nobel Prize, which however was awarded not to him, but to his former boss, Jules Hoffman (who apparently used to be rather disinterested in Lemaitre work in his lab, until he understood the impact of Lemaitre’s findings). This conflict was reported in media (e., in Science), also Lemaitre himself addressed it on his personal blog “Behind Discoveries”.

This experience, and his later observations, likely prompted Lemaitre to study the prevalence of narcissistic personalities among our science elites. Indeed, anyone who ever worked in academia was likely directly affected by the arrogance, power games and ruthless “networking” there, which push aside actual scientific competence and even research integrity, to allow those with lowest scruples and highest ambitions to climb the academic career ladder. According to Lemaitre, narcissism can be briefly described as the propensity to “get ahead” rather than to “get along”. Narcissists are only concerned about their own self-advancement and self-promotion and have little regard for the rules of social interaction. At the same time, their inflated confidence allows narcissistic researchers to radiate professional competence, knowledge and leadership, while their “meticulous” colleagues struggle with the imposter syndrome.  Finally, while narcissists strive for personal power and dominance, they are actually very good in manipulative networking and even sycophantic Macchiavelism towards senior influential figures, all with the goal to advance their careers. Narcissism is a character trait, and is probably only in small part bestowed secondarily by the acquired institutional position: the abusive narcissistic professors of today used to be career-minded narcissistic students in their past. Continue reading “Bruno Lemaitre on Science and Narcissism”

Do nanoparticles deliver? Merck’s Smart Flares and other controversies

Do nanoparticles deliver? Merck’s Smart Flares and other controversies

A large body of scientific nanotechnology literature is dedicated to the biomedical aspect of nanoparticle delivery into cells and tissues. The functionalization of the nanoparticle surface is designed to insure their specificity at targeting only a certain type of cells, such as cancers cells. Other technological approaches aim at the cargo design, in order to ensure the targeted release of various biologically active agents: small pharmacological substances, peptides or entire enzymes, or nucleotides such as regulatory small RNAs or even genes. There is however a main limitation to this approach: though cells do readily take up nanoparticles through specific membrane-bound receptor interaction (endocytosis) or randomly (pinocytosis), these nanoparticles hardly ever truly reach the inside of the cell, namely its nucleocytoplasmic space. Solid nanoparticles are namely continuously surrounded by the very same membrane barrier they first interacted with when entering the cell. These outer-cell membrane compartments mature into endosomal and then lysosomal vesicles, where their cargo is subjected to low pH and enzymatic digestion. The nanoparticles, though seemingly inside the cell, remain actually outside. How so? Continue reading “Do nanoparticles deliver? Merck’s Smart Flares and other controversies”