Diogenes, when once questioned about his curious act of wandering the city in broad daylight with a lamp, replied, “I am looking for an honest man.” (Plutarch, Life of Alexander, XIV.1-5). Honesty in scientific and mathematical research is central to human progress.
Recently, a series of disturbing events have changed the academic community. The President of Stanford was implicated in the creation of fake experimental data (NYT 7/19/2023), a Harvard Professor specializing in the study of dishonesty falsified data on her studies of dishonesty (WSJ 6/26/2023), and a Physics Professor at the University of Rochester manipulated research findings (Amer. Phys. Soc. 3/9/2023), among other instances. These individuals have been under investigation by the scientific community.
These professors manipulated data of multiple publications and by doing so were rewarded with the highest professorships in the United States. Consequences have been severe; each of them either resigned or were suspended. In research, once honesty and integrity are shattered, restoring them is nearly impossible, reminiscent of the futility of the King’s men attempting to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
During my time at NASA, one of the Research Directors was Dr. Charlie Harris. His consistent emphasis was on technical excellence. The term “technical excellence” is challenging to define. In fact, it is not defined in Dr. Harris’s own book, “Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases.” However, I believe that ethics and technical excellence share a common cornerstone – honesty.
I cannot recall a time when I encountered research issues at NASA akin to those the academic communities continually face. This is attributable to the prevailing culture. The NASA Technical Reports Server (https://ntrs.nasa.gov) hosts approximately 100 years of high-quality research. This is due to the ethics, honesty, and the consistent production of high-quality research for which NASA is historically known.
NASA published the “NASA Guidelines for Promoting Scientific Research and Integrity” (6/2018). Additionally, any publication created by NASA undergoes extensive peer review, management review, and review by a chief engineer or scientist. The publication then goes through an entirely separate peer review by a publicly accessible peer-reviewed journal.
In the university system, the number of annual publications and achieving a high impact factor (a statistic) can mark the difference between maintaining a career or having to abandon research altogether. The key to improving quality and ensuring the ethical use of government grants is to focus on quality, not quantity, in government, industrial, and academic research.
If Diogenes were to wander our contemporary world with his lamp, would he find an honest person?