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The conflicting sides of science

Trust is integral to science. Scientists are expected to put self interest aside when they present data, peer review papers and sit on committees for grants. However, science, like any other field, rewards competition.  A researcher only has to outrun competitors to get funding, publish in prestigious journals, nab a tenured job and win awards. With an atmosphere that often feels like a pressure cooker, it's understandable that some will succumb and behave badly. Thus, the recent case of sabotage that appeared in headlines was unsurprising, albeit sad. 

As reported in Nature on September 30, a judge sentenced a postdoc with fines and community service for sabotaging a graduate student's research.  Hidden cameras caught the saboteur in action, which led to his confession. While the entire incident was disconcerting, one thing in particular stood out. It took over four months from the first time that the student suspected sabotage to when authorities put up cameras. So much damage can be done in four months!

The student waited more than two months to alert her boss. It took over a week before someone told university police, who then spent over a month to investigate the victim.  They put her through two interrogations and a lie detector test. Sabotage is a topic that's often avoided among scientists. It's discomforting to think that our peers are untrustworthy, but we can't afford to bury our heads in the sand and not take immediate action.

Science departments should ensure that students are comfortable in sharing their concerns, and authorities should be quicker to put up cameras. It's completely inefficient to spend over a month scrutinizing a potential sabotage victim before taking action in the lab. We must get better at addressing the unfortunate and perhaps inevitable consequences of science's competitive side.

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