Sabotaging experiments and flat tires.

This week’s Science magazine carried a story (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24604172) about a postdoctoral fellow at Yale whose experiments were sabotaged by her fellow worker. As usual, there was some drama associated with the entire process of fault-finding and blames being thrown around but one interesting thing surfaced that this event was considered to be a laboratory prank, not a serious offense. The article goes-

“The complex case raises a host of questions about how to deal with sabotage, a type of misbehavior that some scientists believe is more common than the few known cases suggest. One key point of debate is whether ruining someone’s experiments should fall under the definition of research misconduct, which is usually restricted to fabricating or falsifying data and plagiarism. Some experts argue that wrecking experiments, while terrible, is more akin to slashing a fellow researcher’s tires than to making up data.”

Seriously? Slashing a tire is just that- it is a display of displeasure at a person or his/her act or a series of acts. Even then its validity as a retribution is only in the mind of the perpetrator. Sabotaging an experiment is much more than that. The saboteur wants not only to demonstrate displeasure but also goes to a length of discrediting the targeted scientist’s work. It is far more sinister. It erodes the credibility of the victim and that is what the goal of sabotaging a scientific experiment is. There are ‘legal’ questions being attached to it now:

“Whether sabotage belongs under ORI’s purview is questionable, Rasmussen says. A long and contentious debate took place in the 1990s over whether the U.S. federal definition of research misconduct should include anything beyond fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, commonly referred to as FFP. Some argued that other types of bad behavior, such as sexual harassment or vandalism, could constitute research misconduct as well; others said that would open the floodgates to all kind of accusations, and that such misdeeds could be dealt with through other mechanisms.”

It does not matter whether sabotage comes under the ORI’s purview. The decency of a mentor and the institution demands that the incident should be reported to the authorities. Essentially, the fear among the faculty members is that they would be considered to be lousy managers to let it happen. They take it too personally and distort the facts and penalize the victims. In doing so, they undermine their own credibility and promote a dishonest view of the scientific world.

In the era of print news this ploy of obfuscation could have worked for the lab managers and university authorities. But in an era of Facebook, Twitter and lightening fast worldwide communication, such approach may backfire and undermine the credibility of the scientific researchers in general. Beyond petty bickering, there is no place for egregious acts of sabotaging anyone’s experiments and such people should be quickly removed from the lab before they do bigger damage to the core of the scientific values.

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The Economics of Immigrant Scientists.

Many years ago, a young foreign-born postdoc scientist confided that his mentor/supervisor at a major private university slammed the refrigerator door on his hand while he was reaching to get a pre-fabricated protein gel. The supervisor was particularly crass, and demanded, ‘Do you pay taxes here (in the United States)?”  Not surprisingly, the postdoc was shocked and confused wondering what he did wrong.  After all, he was doing the routine stuff- setting up an experiment using a pre-fabricated gel just like the other 10 or so postdocs in the lab did.  But the supervisor went on, “You know that the gel is expensive and the US taxpayers’ dollars go into (buying) it.”  Considering that the situation could become ugly, the postdoc quietly left the spot and continued his work.

The ignorant professor’s aggression was an uncharacteristic display of his stupidity since his laboratory’s research depended on the hard work of foreign-born scientists.  At the same time, his letting down of the thin veil of civility was disturbing because it exposed a similarly ugly mentality of a segment of our society.  This ugliness surfaces every now and then in the popular media in the form of immigration debate.

This story has troubled me ever since.  Although I am not a social scientist, immigration law expert, or an economist, I gave a little more thought to it.  By asking whether the postdoc paid taxes, the professor was assuming that the foreign-born postdoc was a tax burden to the people of the United States. It is true that a small number of scientists from foreign countries may opt to not pay taxes under certain US scientists exchange programs. But the majority of working scientists, including our friend, pays taxes just like any US citizen.  So, we can safely say that the professor was an idiot and forget about the entire incident.

But wait.  That is not the complete story.  There are some broader interesting facts related to the issue of foreigners in this country that most politicians and demagogues conveniently ignore. Let’s start by declaring that a foreign-born scientist, engineer or doctor is a huge free grant from her/his country (read Third World Country)  to the people of the United States!

I will try to explain it very briefly.  When a scientist, engineer or doctor enters this country, her professional education, in fact,  her entire existence has been fully paid by the taxpayers of her native country.  When a foreign-born professional decides to migrate to the US, she brings the wealth of her nation with her.  The taxpayers of the US had no contribution to her upbringing, education or professional training.  The US taxpayers simply receive services from day one without spending a dollar.

This brings me to another question-  how many dollars does an immigrating professional scientist, engineer or doctor represent?  Put another way, how many dollars’ worth of gain does the US have from the immigrant scientists? It is a tough question to answer because cost of living in different countries may vary widely. However, we can roughly estimate how much it would cost us in the US to raise a child to obtain a professional degree.  A news article in The Wall Street Journal mentioned about cost of raising a child in the US (Click here),  The cost of raising a child without the expenses of college education was pegged at $300,000.  To this add the cost of preparing a professional through advance graduate degree.  I could not immediately get a reliable number for the US medical or engineering education, but a published study in 2003 (click here) showed that medical schools (6 years) in Thailand spent more than 2 million baht (approx. $ 70,000) per medical student. We can safely assume that the cost of training medical professionals in the US is much higher than that. Based on this information, I will take a guess here to say that to raise a professional born in the US, it would cost $ 1 million to the US taxpayers.  Now you see where I am going?  Every foreign-born and trained professional migrating to the US is worth $1 million to the US!

That brings us to the next question-  how many foreign-born professionals are in the US?  The answer is a LOT!  In the healthcare, almost a quarter of the workforce including doctors (Click here, or here, or here, or here).  The numbers for PhDs and engineers are equally high (Click here).  Now if you multiply the number of foreign-born professionals with a $1 million price-tag, you will immediately realize that the so called Third World countries (it is a stupid term since the ‘Second World’ does not exist anymore) donate billions of dollars to the US in terms of manpower! Not a bad deal, eh? We can now begin to deconstruct the motive of our lectern-thumping politicians in the immigration debate. We can also put the US govt’s aid to developing nations in some perspective.

Then there is the question of snatching the american jobs-  the facts tell us (if you read the links above) that there is a serious shortage of professionals in the US.  These foreigners do not ‘steal’ jobs, instead they contribute to the society in a very positive manner to keep the US at the forefront of scientific and technological advancement.

Of course there are many debatable issues of socio-economic and political nature but at least as scientists and academicians we should chose to use our brains and not brand the foreign-born scientists as usurpers. And certainly not smash refrigerator door on the hands of a hard-working postdoc.