Monthly Archives: September 2011

The (not so) Schön controversy


This title may sound like the one of an episode of the famous geeky sitcom The Big Bang Theory but it is not; it is in fact a far more interesting albeit less fun debate. First of all I want to make clear this post isn’t an attempt to further bash Dr. Schön err I mean Mr. Schön (sorry, I couldn’t help it) but the entire debate raises some interesting questions, specially those regarding the recent outcome of the controversy as well as the forthcoming aftermath, that are worth asking and of course, with some luck, answering.

A little background first: Jan Hendrik Schön (Germany, 1970) got a PhD in physics at the prestigious Konstanz University in his homeland; after that he got a job as a researcher at the even more prestigious Bell Laboratories located in New Jersey USA, where he made groundbreaking discoveries on conductivity, superconductivity, organic conductors and semiconductors. Ironically enough, his conduct was his doom (Sorry again, I couldn’t help this one either. ) Between 2001 and 2002 he published more than 60 scientific papers on these topics, 15 or so of which were published in Science and Nature. Similarities in the graphs led to other scientists to believe the data could have been manipulated which turned out to be the case! Little by little, both journals Science and Nature, as well as other important journals like Physical Review and Applied Physics Letters withdrew some of his papers; others remain under further investigation for their possible withdrawal. Dr. Jan Schön eventually had to come clean and confess his lack of scientific rigor and misbehavior. This and him being fired from Bell Labs could have been the end of the story but in no way was near it. In 2004 the University of Konstanz decided to withdraw his PhD degree to which Dr. Schön appealed on the grounds that his thesis work was performed without any data manipulation or any other sort of ethical misconduct on his part;  finally today after seven years of back and forth lawsuits and appeals the state court ruled against him and the university stripped him from his degree. Dr. Schön is now Mr. Schön. Further details (since this post does not intend to be a repository of others nor to just inform you about the entire gossip) can be found in this Wikipedia article.

So what is this post about then? First of all I’d like to address the obvious questions: Was the University of Konstanz right or wrong about withdrawing his degree? Did they go too far? What are the implications for other scientists? There is still controversy among the scientific community about whether or not the University had any right to do it on the grounds of scientific misconduct on work that they did not fund nor had to do anything with. The matter is fairly obvious, the University of Konstanz does not want to be affiliated with Schön on any level since it will indirectly hurt their reputation. But is someone really thinking that this university is to blame? I hardly think so. Therefore on that side they could have let him keep his degree but on the other side one may postulate that credibility must be sustained throughout our careers just in the same way as MD’s can have their licenses revoked under malpractice. Granted, MD’s get stripped only from the right to legally exercise medicine not from their degree, meaning that in some cases they may recover that legal right instead of having to go to school all over again, although in the harshest cases this wouldn’t help either.

Definitely his conduct deserved strong actions from his employers and the scientific community, in the end almost 30 papers in very prestigious journals had to be withdrawn! He was trying to take the scientific community for a spin! And this is another thing I’m baffled about. Didn’t he ever think that such claims, such amazing claims, would attract the interest of a large number of the most prominent scientists working in the field of conductivity? As if there weren’t billions of dollars invested in those topics worldwide! If he was breaking new ground in organic superconductivity by proving some theoretical predictions, he would have gotten a Nobel prize for sure and that would have attracted a lot more people in trying to reproduce his findings in order to make their own little contributions therefrom. In fact this actually happened! Many laboratories throughout the world claimed to have failed in reproducing his results. I can only imagine those teams feeling frustrated for not being able to get the same numbers/trends in their experiments and clearly getting less and less frustrated when they found out they were not alone and that the number of their companions was growing larger. Had he published his results in some obscure, dubious-quality journal probably nobody would have ever found out, but then Lucent Technologies, the profitable company that runs Bell Labs would have not been happy in funding his research. This in turn raises yet other questions: How come nobody at Bell Labs was able to tell his results were all made up or even just tempered with? Private companies are not run as academic labs, publication of findings go through a lengthier process than in academia, which is normal since private research centers invest a lot of money in developing technologies which will generate enough profit to keep the company running and researching for as long as possible. They also have strict policies about data-recording and experiment-tracking procedures which apply to every researcher in the company; they are not subject to interpretation or to desire, they have to be followed to keep track of all the expensive research done within. The second question I got from this paragraph is about other frauds done in lesser journals which may go unnoticed because the work itself simply goes unnoticed by its own lack of merit. And from this, yet another question is raised and linked to another ongoing controversy: What is the future of peer-reviewing in journal publications? Surely no referee would have tried to reproduce his experiments and I’m sure a large number of data was requested by Nature and Science in order to deem the papers worth of being published (was his answer to this request “No problem!“?) Referees this quality were blindsided by reputations, Schön’s and Bell Lab’s; only until the final users (the readers) noticed similarities between data sets, and noise, in different experiments that the fraud rose to the surface, but noticing those similarities should have been the work of the referees! in fact that is their job! Aren’t they accountable by omission too?

This controversy is not a first, nor will it be the last. The most famous controversy of data tempering that comes to mind right now is the infamous experiment, or more accurately the infamous data selection in Robert Millikan’s experiment for measuring the charge of the electron. In this experiment only the “nicest” data points were used and although inclusion of the entire data set would have not affected the final value of the charge obtained, the statistical error would be increased to 2% instead of 0.5% as he presented it to the scientific community; a much “nicer” error. Of course I’m not trying to compare both cases which are completely apart; selecting data is not as serious as data manufacturing, but they are both just as unethical. Should have Millikan been stripped from his PhD degree and/or his Nobel Prize?

Mexico is not immune to this controversies either. In 2006 three papers authored by the famous Mexican Professor Eusebio Juaristi and his student Omar Muñoz-Muñiz in 2003, had to be withdrawn also on the grounds of irreproducibility from the Journal of Organic Chemistry, Tetrahedron and Tetrahedron Letters. There were serious errors in those papers which led to believe the student had incurred in scientific misconduct but apparently they managed to prove they were simply honest mistakes. Was Muñoz-Muñiz denied his PhD degree? No. In fact he now works as a researcher at Universidad Veracruzana in Mexico. Not a bad gig. I understand he had some problems getting into the National Researchers System which gathers us all researchers in Mexico as an independent entity at the same time that it collects data about the research done in the country. Data seems to be today’s secret word kids! Once again the whole ordeal could have been dealt with if a proper peer reviewing process had been carried out from the very start.

The conclusions: Ethical work, ethical reviews. Is it really that hard?

2011, International Year of Chemistry
http://www.chemistry2011.org
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Green Chemistry and sustainable development


https://joaquinbarroso.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/sustainability.jpg?w=300As I recently pointed out in an interview for a webinar titled The Future We Create, (sponsored by the Dow Chemical Co.) I believe we must clearly differentiate the concepts of Green Chemistry and Sustainable chemistry or we take the risk of confusing purpose and procedure; instead, having them both clearly defined we can use their definitions as a working frame in order to solve the ongoing environmental problems our society is facing.

While I consider them both a lifestyle in science, one of the utmost relevance, Green Chemistry is oriented towards the way we perform chemistry in order to achieve a sustainable chemical industry. Chemicals are part of the human revolution, understood as that in which the human race has transformed his own environment and surroundings to an amazing -and yet alarming- extent; so chemicals and their chemistry, are not going anywhere. Perhaps we haven’t performed this revolution in the best possible way; and by that I mean a way in which we could keep on transforming our world and our surrounding environment practically forever without actually damaging but blending with them, incorporating the natural cycle of renewable resources in our own transformations. Sustainability is the way by which a process can endure over a long period of time and it requires a balance between the intake of resources and the outcome of products and byproducts, which ideally should blend back into the environment, or even yet more ideally, help in the coupled equilibrium of the generation of the resources needed in the intake of the same processes that generate them in the first place. It is a matter of balance, but more importantly about cycles; cycles that couple with one another in an economically, socially and chemically productive way. Only with this approach will our current society endure for the generations to come and will gradually encompass a larger number of individuals, minimizing the population whose survival is in danger.

Sustainable chemistry is the philosophical approach, the ethical code if you please, with which the ongoing transformations can still be performed while the damage to the environment, namely our ecosystems, is brought to a minimum in order to maintain our industry and the benefits therefrom for generations to come and spread to a larger scale. But this is not only a mater of environmentalist nature, it is also an economical matter; Sustainable developement has to bring forward those who were already left behind; societies that now in the 21st century are still struggling with famine and disease and furthermore now face an even worse scenario when it comes to water. Also in urban areas sustainability can be the answer to job creations. Companies must increase their profits year after year, no doubt about it, but doing so in a sustainable and socially responsible way can ensure larger growths over larger periods of time while sacrificing the immediate profit for the long-term benefit.

Computational chemistry plays a key role in the paradigm shift towards a sustainable chemical industry. The QSAR approach allows us to analyze the physicochemical properties of a very large number of compounds in less time of what ordinary chemistry would take. Computational chemistry gives the researcher a deeper insight of the electronic effects of any given chemical process through the mathematical modeling and computing of various properties. Computational chemistry based QSAR, alongside with combinatorial chemistry and high throughput screening methods are able to do the work of a thousand chemists in less than a year, saving resources, time and also making a larger exploration of the chemical space relevant to the process under study.

Nature has been sustainable on its own with no better example than photosynthesis. Photosynthetic organisms use CO2 as intake and transform H2O during that process into O2 which is expelled as a byproduct which is then inhaled by animal organisms which use it in their metabolism to produce CO2 as a waste product. The fragile equilibrium goes on and on provided other equilibria are kept in balance (physical conditions such as pressure and temperature).

Of course, as Kermit the Frog has previously stated:

kermie

But it should be! Right now it ain’t because we haven’t done enough efforts to perform a paradigm shift. in schools, in our jobs; our everyday lives. it will be very expensive yet the cost of negligence will be even higher and paid by the generations to come.

Many things have been written about sustainability; we should all read at least some of them…

Please share your thoughts and practical ideas for a sustainable future within the framework of your own green chemistry paradigm in the comments section.

2011, International Year of Chemistry
http://www.chemistry2011.org
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