If you are constantly checking in for the latest updates about Covid-19, you may have heard the recent research fraud [1] that was published in the highly reputed medical journal, The Lancet, which resulted in a huge backlash. When something like this comes up, most of us think, why would someone do that? While incidents like this are not expected for a sensitive topic like medicine, it is actually quite common. Today we will try to dig deep and find out why such mischievous acts even exist. (Article continues below)

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We have to keep in mind that scientists are not angels. They are humans like us, with greed, corporate greed (!). They, too, have families. While there are millions of researchers and scientists out there working on various fields and topics, most of them do not have their own source of income. Usually, they work on bigger projects initiated by a big corporation or a business organization. Almost always, the funding, lab facility and research equipment are made accessible to the scientists by the organizations they’re part of. Now, let’s ask, what is the goal of those organizations? What are they trying to achieve by conducting research on a particular subject? The short and long answer is “business.” The ultimate goal is to invent something new (disruptive innovation) or something that has the potential to create a unique business opportunity.

And this whole thing is solely dependent on the researchers. If they succeed, the company they work for will have a new business opportunity; in return, they will have more opportunities to climb up the corporate ladder, potentially earn more, gain a reputation in the field and more work opportunities in the future. And if they fail? All the money invested by the corporation will be in vain. The sum we are talking about is usually a few million (US Dollars) if not more.

The pressure is enormous. Especially when you know if you succeed, you will have the opportunity to put a dent that will have a strong impact on people's lives in the future. Some researchers fall for it. And that is where the problem begins. They try to manipulate data, provide false results, conducts research fraud, and other mischievous acts. A recent study [2] showed that around 1.97% of the participant scientists admit that they fabricated, falsified, modified and manipulated data – a serious form of misconduct, to have a pre-determined outcome.

Also, more than 30% admitted that they conducted other questionable research practices. And what more alarming is, such activities were more prevalent among pharmacological/medical researchers than others. This is just the tip of the iceberg since this study was conducted only among a small group of researchers. In real-time, the scenario is even more devastating.

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While science exists to reduce bias, it is impossible to obliterate bias. The very nature of humans is against it. Also, most of the fraudulent activities go unreported because of the very reputation of scientists, and the organization they work for comes into play. [3] [4] [5] [6]

Okay, now we know scientists may conduct fraudulent research activities. But what about the organizations they work for? Well, they are not always the “angel,” either. Corporations may use scientists to create a pre-determined outcome that will align with their business interests. While scientists may get caught in the act, it is hard to capture the bigger fish. Also, most of the time, such activities are not reported because the reputation of the organization is on the table. Even when they get caught, they can bribe the politicians to remain silent instead of taking actions and get away with it. As such, the vicious cycle feeds on itself and doesn’t cease to exist. [7] A good example of this is the epic siemens fraud in Germany [8].

Another thing we notice very often is, people keep saying, “politics should not indulge with science.” Well, science is inherently political. Scientists are part of society. While they conduct research to improve the quality of a society, it is essential to know that the driving force behind a society is politics. Politics shape the road the society will take. The big decisions are always political. And moreover, usually, independent researchers take government grants to establish their lab and facilitate research (don’t forget, most scientists are nerds, and they don’t have a pile of cash to support themselves and their families while working in a lab). While this accounts for a relatively small number of scientists, politics still plays a huge role in shaping what those scientists will be doing with all those government grants. (Wooh, creating human-animal chimera is banned!!! Ever asked why?).

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Also, corporations and other organizations have to comply with politicians to save their business interests. This ultimately impacts the researchers that are working for the organization. Hence, it is hard to separate science, politics, and business from each other. They are an integral part of each other and should serve for the betterment of the society and its people.

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[1] https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)31180-6/fulltext

[2] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19478950/

[3] https://www1.lehigh.edu/research/consequence/are-we-all-inherently-biased

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4451179/

[5] https://www.tuv-nord.com/in/en/blog/blog-details/article/unconscious-bias-a-natural-human-tendency/

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3024134/

[7] https://hbr.org/2020/07/research-why-corporate-fraud-reports-are-down

[8] https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=8899a469-4d50-4ff7-b870-daba60f3821d