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Science stories from the Near North

The Custodians of Truth

Academics routinely lie and exaggerate when telling funding agencies what impact their research will have, a series of candid interviews with scholars in Britain and Australia has suggested, 
reports Times Higher Education.

Is anyone surprised?

The abstract of the study says it straight out:

”We review attitudes towards pathway to impact statements – formal components of research funding applications, that specify the prospective socio-economic benefits of proposed research – from (n = 50) academics based in the UK and Australia and how the hyper-competitiveness of the Higher Education market is resulting in impact sensationalism and the corruption of academics as custodians of truth.”

The Custodians of Truth are corrupt. Not good. But as a reporter in the field I feel like somewhat of an accomplice. Sensational results with a big impact of course make much better copy than mediocre results with incremental impact. Yes indeed.

But sensational results are very rare. It takes some years in the business to realise that. And it takes years to understand what impact a discovery really will have.

I like that concept, Impact sensationalism. I try to keep it in mind when reading or writing about fusion power, designer babies, artificially intelligent go-players or what-have-you.

But when it comes to grant applications it is impossible to avoid lying, according to an Australian professor.

John Hawks, who comments on the study says:

A true explanation of the scientific value of a project should look much more like good public communication. But good public communication is too often reviled by those who review grants, as insufficiently “scientific” in tone. It’s a catch-22.

And reconnecting to the big issue here in the subarctic lands during the last few weeks: this is how 14 professors and other scientists at Karolinska Institutet explained the immediate and urgent need to recruit Paolo Macchiarini to the institute in a letter to the KI Chancellor in June 2010:

By recruiting Prof M. a growing European network cooperation can blossom. We believe we will  have a working regenerative airway transplantation activity running three months after his employment, at the latest. 

Patients could be recruited nationally, and in a slightly longer perspective, from all of Europe.

With airways as a foundation, the regenerative research activities might be expanded into adjacent fields of transplantation, like lungs. The latter could also in the longer run contribute to strengthening Stockholm’s competence in the field of heart transplants.

This is not exactly an application for grants, but there is clearly the smell of money in the air. A new center for regenerative transplantations (with engineered organs, no less) is in sight. After only three months. This would have given KI the upper hand in the eternal competition with Lund and Gothenburg. So the realistic assessments  went out the window.  And maybe this is also exactly what the recipients of the letter wanted to hear, if we take the new study seriously.



2 Kommentarer

  1. In the last three weeks I haven’t heard any news about the scandal in the subarctic lands. Did we miss something abroad or is it generally getting silent now? Furthermore, it’s surprising that no one seems to have gone into the matter during PM’s time in Hannover. I can’t believe there is nothing dodgy to be found here.
    Keep us who can’t read Swedish posted! BTW: Are you aware of a subtitled version of ”Experimenten”? I could only find some clips in Youtube.

    • skartofta

      19 mars, 2016 at 16:45

      What’s going on here is basically a number (twelve now, I gather) of investigations at different institutions re the affair – at KI and Karolinska Univ Hospital, on how the processes of approval were conducted, how he was employed etc. There is the renewed investigation into scientific misconduct, including all the articles published under PM:s name in The Lancet and other journals. There are also investigations at Gothenburg, which I cover in the previous post.
      Few of the concerned persons will act or say anything while these are ongoing, so there is not much news coming out. Heads will roll, and PM will never come back here again.
      But an excellent coverage of this scandal – and other scientific irregularities – in Leonid Schneider’s English blog at He has tried to track Macch’s and his colleagues’ present whereabouts.
      I have heard that an English version of the documentary is forthcoming, but not when it will be released. I will investigate.


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