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The rewards of being a scientist


Fraud and embezzlement in science
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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I remember at a meeting someone once stood up and said, ‘Let's get crime off the streets and back into the labs where it belongs’, you see. No, I think... I think fraud is a product of two things, actually. It's first... it's a product of the work structure, because we now have a managerial structure in many labs where there are generals and captains and corporals, there's a whole hierarchy of people that work, and in general the person, the head of a lab, has no direct connection with a bench. And someone working remotely there, there's no absolute direct connection with the benchwork. Now, that is bad. Because somebody may make an honest mistake, in fact I know things like this have happened, and come and say, I've got this, I've found this. Now the corrector supervisor sends him back again to go and repeat it or preferably do it in another way to support it. But sometimes it happens that this strikes home at the... in... in the man's mind that this is a novel and very extreme finding. And then he says, but that means, that means such and such and such and such. And now if you go and do the following experiment and you get this answer, right, then we... this'll happen. And indeed the person goes and does the experiment, and he doesn't get quite the answer, may need a little bit of massaging, but once you're on this, then it's not fraud, this is what I call embezzlement. Because everybody believes that effectively they'll be able to put... one day it'll come right and everything will be put back and no one will know. You see, so that's the embezzler who takes £10 out of the cash till every Friday night and lays it on the horses. What he thinks is, one day the horse will win and he'll put all the money back and no one will know. So I think a lot of that goes on, and I think that once... if you're doing experiments yourself, and you learn what all the snags are and you know that if you're working as part of a group so that you do part of the experiment yourself, then I think that it's very hard to... to get this kind of co-operative crime. I think the other things that are now being driven, I... I mean, are the material aspects of science, which is just actually getting enough money for the lab, I think quite a lot of activities there can lead to, if not fraud, certainly exaggeration, if we can put it this way. I think there's a lot of concealment. I think a lot of work is kept secret. That is, there's no free exchange in the sense that people don't tell you what they're doing if they think in fact you'll... you'll get there first. So the competition I think does... does make for kind of... a kind of... now that it's competition not at the individual level in this, but it's at the corporate level, makes then for a kind of struggle that is... that I think has its bad effects.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Duration: 4 minutes, 9 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010