Money as an Ethical Lighthouse
6 Jun, 2007 03:15 pm
Money makes the world go ?round, and the research world is no different.
In the academic world, our thirst for knowledge should be greater than that for cash, but we have all seen examples of departments choosing to tenure professors who rake in money over those who are excellent educators. Of course, who can blame them? Schools need money to exist and funding is easy to measure, whereas scholarship, mentorship, and teaching ability are not.
Despite the fact that they are difficult to quantify, these “intangibles” can still be examined in financial terms. Students pay tuition, so when you accept a teaching position, you owe it to them to do a good job. What counts as a “good job” will always be a subject of debate, but knowingly slacking off in your teaching duties is despicable behavior. When a grad-student TA proudly decides that teaching is not something to be taken seriously, he is cheating his students and their families out of their hard-earned money. Of course, there are many other reasons to take teaching seriously, but I think the monetary aspect is lost on many of the proudest slackers.
In the lab, we must remember that we are the stewards of the taxpayers’ money. Whether you are paid by a fellowship or off of a grant, you owe the public a good job in return for your stipend. This includes maintaining a respectable work schedule and upholding the ethical standards of our profession. Fortunately, most of us enjoy our work and are proud to defend our profession against those who would damage its reputation for personal gain, financial or otherwise. Researchers who engage in scientific misconduct show a callous lack of respect for science and profound disregard for the sanctity of taxpayer money. Those who commit fraud—and those who are grossly negligent in their responsibility to police the activities of their employees—should be charged criminally, punished by the government, and dismissed from their institutions.
Beyond the truly loathsome individuals among us who lie about or misrepresent their results, I also get upset with researchers who win grants for one set of ideas, then spend the money on projects that are not just tangential, but completely different. To me, this smacks of obtaining funding under false pretenses, and I consider it to be dishonest behavior. If someone offers you money to work in an area, either use it to do what you said you would do or decline the offer. At the very least, you should contact the funding agency to disclose your intentions and make sure they are acceptable. A famous professor here has been chided by students and colleagues alike for returning unused portions of his grant money back to the funding agencies upon completion of a project. While this practice is viewed by many as an incredible waste of an opportunity, there is definitely something gallant about his honesty and sense of responsibility to the public. For the record, I would have no problems with his using the remaining balance to improve his students’ efficiency by purchasing new equipment—it would probably be better for his lab to use the money instead of it getting distributed to someone else. Still, I respect his choice. Government funding should not be viewed as an entitlement to the scientific community. We must earn our keep and prove that it is in society’s best interest to continue to fund our work. We live in a democracy—a government of the people—and correspondingly, we owe it to everyone to spend their money in a responsible manner.
I try to be on my best financial behavior when in lab. While in many labs at Harvard it seems like we have a limitless supply of grant money, it irks me to see people waste it. I try not to waste time on the NMR instruments. I try not to leave the HPLC pumps running longer than necessary. I shut off UV lamps. I shut off lights. I always search for the best prices on chemicals and supplies. (With the ease-of-use of the Available Chemicals Database, there is really no excuse not to.) Occasionally, I undertake projects like rounding up empty nitrogen cylinders in our lab and returning them (they cost us $3/month, each, to rent). Does any of this make a difference? I hope so. Is it a big one? Probably not.
Despite my best intentions, there are still times when I cheat. I use solvents to clean stains from personal belongings. I use bits of dry ice to blow up microcentrifuge tubes. When pulling spotters, I warp a few Pasteur pipettes with the Bunsen burner because it is fun. I rationalize these perks by thinking about how much money I’ve spent on office supplies for research and how many articles of clothing I’ve lost in the name of science, but I realize that these considerations don’t make my indiscretions right. Still, my violations equate to jaywalking where the crimes described above amount to first-degree murder.
At the end of the day, my guiding principle is simple: If reports of my behavior were to become public, would I be embarrassed? If someone were to step forward and describe my actions that day, in explicit detail, would I be proud of myself? Could I defend my conduct without feeling dirty or guilty doing so? Thinking back over my days in chemistry, I can’t think of any event of which I would truly be ashamed. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve made mistakes—tons of them—but they were all honest mistakes.
Sadly, I think we all know of individuals in our field who could not make the same claim.
Don’t become one of them.
Originally posted at ChemBark