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Thursday, August 29, 2013

I Am... a Research Laboratory Scientist

I recently watched the documentary, "I Am". In this documentary, Tom Shadyac, a very wealthy and successful Hollywood director (Ace Ventura, The Nutty Professor, Bruce Almighty) gives away most of his wealth to live a more simple and meaningful life. He gives up the private jets to fly coach. He sells his real estate in exchange for a modest trailer in North Malibu. This new path in life leads him to make this documentary. He asks two questions:

What is wrong with our world?
What can we do to fix it?

We need to ask the same questions of science.

What is wrong with science? Like any human enterprise, we have good, bad, and ugly. In science however, the good is so goddamn good that the bad and the ugly are cloaked in an aura of success. As Mark Twain said, "Give a man a reputation as an early riser and he can sleep til noon." In science we have people taking advantage of the good reputation. We have gone so far over the deep end that people argue against orchestrated efforts to make science more reproducible. Reproducible useful science that can be turned into a technology is somehow not of interest to all modern day scientists. It is now a special niche for online groups like this one.

What can we do to fix it?

The first thing we must do is admit that we are fallible. We have our share of negative things. We have begun to see more policing of the journals, thanks to the internet and concerned citizens of the scientific community. They seek the negative and shine a light on it. "Watch out! Don't step on this." We have Retraction Watch for example, which deals with a side of science publications the editors would rather not acknowledge. Not everything that gets published is true. In fact, being truthful is not the main concern of the journals. They want that wow factor. But the negative is a necessary side of life. Without pain we won't know pleasure. Without rainy days we won't appreciate the sunny days quite as much. Why then are the journals full of so many positive outcome research projects that had no apparent unexplainable results?

There must first be an acknowledgment that something is wrong before we can begin to make corrections. In this retraction reported on Retraction Watch we have a George Washington University professor being policed by anonymous "peers" on another useful website called PubPeer.  Rakesh Kumar (no blood relation to Kumare... but there is a relationship) retracted a JBC paper after being called out for some obvious manipulations and reuses of photographs taken of fluorescent stained cells.
Fig. 8 of this paper shows image of fluorescent cells. The top panel of 8B (Ctrl.) and the lower left panel of Fig. 8D (MCF-7/MTA1, Ctrl. siRNA) has part of the same image used to represent a completely different experimental condition.
Furthermore, the top right panel of Figure 8D (MCF-7/pcDNA, HMMR overexpression) contains portions of an image from another paper by this group (Figure 7C, top right panel of JBC 2012; 287: p5615-5626, PMID: 22184113). The panel below this (lower right of 8D) also contains part of the image from the lower right portion of Fig. 7C in the other JBC paper. Identical images presented for completely unrelated experimental conditions.
Notably the images are not re-used “straight”, but are re-sized, different exposure, contrast, brightness, and moved slightly in the field of view. This makes it unlikely that this was simply an accidental pasting of the wrong image during manuscript preparation.
Finally, Fig. 8C of this paper shows cell migration (scratch wound) assays. Portions of the top right panel are again identical to images in the top right panel of Figure 7A in the other JBC paper.
The peer reviewers missed this and they always will. They do not have the tools to catch such errors/oversights/mistakes/misconduct/fraud. The people who catch this kind of misconduct are just nerds who don't want to compete in a rigged game. It brings them great pleasure to be a part of that great idea, that science is self correcting. Other groups are leveling the playing field via open access. Sometimes our science becomes too complex for one individual or one company to tackle alone. We have people increasing transparency through Open Access initiatives. Groups like:

Foundation for Open Access Statistics
The AllTrials Campaign

... to name a few.

In the documentary Tom Shadyac speaks of insanity. His version of insanity is where we take more than we need and knowing that the group would be better off if we shared. The analogy in "I Am" is a tribe that lives for 1,000 years working together. Everyone has a role. Some require more strength, like the hunters. Some require more caring, like those who look after the children and the elderly. One day the strongest hunter decides he is doing the most important work so he begins to store his kills up in a cave. Soon the strongest of the tribe begin to hoard more and more rewards earned by their hard labor. We have this in science. Our strongest scientist get the most money. They conduct their research and only release the details as they see fit. There is no system to do make the scientist share information. To end this insanity, we have to make systematic changes. Asking powerful individuals to simply share more is not going to work.

Another example of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Over and over we give the power to the same group and we keep the weakest group, the laboratory workers, worried about their jobs if the wrong kinds of results show up. How would you create a more productive balance between the PI and the lab?

The next thing we must do is go to the positive side of our work. Science is power. Knowledge is power. A well trained, certified laboratory workforce is what I would do to fix the world of science. If I were to design a course of study for a one year certification for research laboratory scientists (RLS), what would it look like? Design of Experiment, Quantitative analysis, Imaging, Technical Transfers/Writing, Process Development... The simple act of thinking up a training course gets ones mind thinking about what matters in research. After the initial training and certification an ongoing lifelong education would begin. Level I, Level II, Greenbelt, Blackbelt... An empowered laboratory workforce would indeed be a thorn in the side of likes of Rakesh Kumar. To those who care a little more about science and the rewards it provides, it will increase the value of research dollars.

One day you will be mistaken for a 1990s, 2000s style research associate, post doc, research assistant, lab tech...  Weak, easily manipulated and easily blamed for mistakes. Hopefully you will be able to respond, I Am a Research Laboratory Scientist (RLS), and it means something.


Anonymous said...

Good idea, what's the barrier?

aliah said...

Research lab scientist is someone understand research projects very well & can help a lot in research projects.
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