Sunday, October 3, 2010

Dog-Eat-Dog World

Here is a bit from a sad tale of academic competition turned criminal activity from Nature magazine:
Postdoc Vipul Bhrigu destroyed the experiments of a colleague in order to get ahead. It took a hidden camera to expose a surreptitious and malicious side of science.

It is sentencing day at Washtenaw County Courthouse... Judge Elizabeth Pollard Hines ... calls Bhrigu's case to order, she has stern words for him: "I was inclined to send you to jail when I came out here this morning."

Bhrigu, over the course of several months at Michigan, had meticulously and systematically sabotaged the work of Heather Ames, a graduate student in his lab, by tampering with her experiments and poisoning her cell-culture media. Captured on hidden camera, Bhrigu confessed to university police in April and pleaded guilty to malicious destruction of personal property, a misdemeanour ... Bhrigu has said on multiple occasions that he was compelled by "internal pressure" and had hoped to slow down Ames's work. Speaking earlier this month, he was contrite. "It was a complete lack of moral judgement on my part," he said.

Bhrigu's actions are surprising, but probably not unique. There are few firm numbers showing the prevalence of research sabotage, but conversations with graduate students, postdocs and research-misconduct experts suggest that such misdeeds occur elsewhere, and that most go unreported or unpoliced. In this case, the episode set back research, wasted potentially tens of thousands of dollars and terrorized a young student. More broadly, acts such as Bhrigu's — along with more subtle actions to hold back or derail colleagues' work — have a toxic effect on science and scientists. They are an affront to the implicit trust between scientists that is necessary for research endeavours to exist and thrive.


At Washtenaw County Courthouse in July, having reviewed the case files, Pollard Hines delivered Bhrigu's sentence. She ordered him to pay around US$8,800 for reagents and experimental materials, plus $600 in court fees and fines — and to serve six months' probation, perform 40 hours of community service and undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

But the threat of a worse sentence hung over Bhrigu's head. At the request of the prosecutor, Ross had prepared a more detailed list of damages, including Bhrigu's entire salary, half of Ames's, six months' salary for a technician to help Ames get back up to speed, and a quarter of the lab's reagents. The court arrived at a possible figure of $72,000, with the final amount to be decided upon at a restitution hearing in September.

Before that hearing could take place, however, Bhrigu and his wife left the country for India. Bhrigu says his visa was contingent upon having a job. A new hearing has been scheduled for October in which the case for restitution will be heard alongside arguments that Bhrigu has violated his probation.
I don't understand the logic of the judge's ruling. If this crime that destroyed tens of thousands of dollars, wasted the better part of a year of a graduate student's life, and demoralizes science is worthy of only a $9,000 fine. That is like "fining" a thief who steal from the corner store $100 for taking maybe $200 each time he gets caught. The punishment doesn't fit the crime. What it does show is that "white collar" crime is never punished like the crimes of the poor or the working class. It does show that the real purpose of the police/legal/"justice" system is to put fear into the bottom 3/4 of society while giving "their betters" pretty well a free hand to carry out minor crimes. A crime is a crime. It needs to be taken seriously. This guy not only wasted/destroyed university property, he nearly ended the career of a young researcher and he has undermined the entire atmosphere of cooperation that makes science possible.

To show you how little this "punishment" meant to Bhrigu, here's a bit from further down the article:
After Bhrigu pleaded guilty in June, Ross [the supervisor of the graduate student harmed by Bhrigu] called Trempe at the University of Toledo [the previous employer of Bhrigu]. He was shocked, of course, and for more than one reason. His department at Toledo had actually re-hired Bhrigu. Bhrigu says that he lied about the reason he left Michigan, blaming it on disagreements with Ross. Toledo let Bhrigu go in July, not long after Ross's call.
In short, Bhrigu was an unrepentant criminal ready to perpetrate a lie to weasel back into science and probably sabotage yet more researchers!

This crime nearly destroyed a career. Here's the proof:
For her part, Ames says that the experience shook her trust in her chosen profession. "I did have doubts about continuing with science. It hurt my idea of science as a community that works together, builds upon each other's work and collaborates." Nevertheless, she has begun to use her experience to help teach others, and has given a seminar about the experience, with Ross, to new graduate students. She says that the assistance she got from Ross and others helped her cope with the ordeal.

"It did help restore the trust," she says. "In a sense I was lucky that we could catch it."
Why would a judge decide that such a heinous crime "merits" only a $8,800 fine???

Those who want to blame "the system" and not look at the criminal remind me of all the court cases where the criminal trots in with story about "abuse" as a child and stories about how others -- always 'others' -- who had hurt, harmed, degraded, or undermined the perpetrator's path to success. Nuts.

Here's the equivalent claim in this case:
Some say that the structure of the scientific enterprise is to blame. The big rewards — tenured positions, grants, papers in stellar journals — are won through competition. To get ahead, researchers need only be better than those they are competing with. That ethos, says Brian Martinson, a sociologist at HealthPartners Research Foundation in Minneapolis, Minnesota, can lead to sabotage. He and others have suggested that universities and funders need to acknowledge the pressures in the research system and try to ease them by means of education and rehabilitation, rather than simply punishing perpetrators after the fact.

But did rivalry drive Bhrigu? He and Ames were collaborating on one of their projects, but they were not in direct competition. Chiron Graves, a former graduate student in Ross's lab who helped Bhrigu learn techniques, says that Ross is passionate but didn't put undue stress on her personnel.
In other worse, there wasn't a 'competitive' environment and Bhrigu wasn't in direct competition but was a collaborator on some work. So the spiking of Ames' work was purely a criminal act to destroy a fellow worker. Grad students don't normally replace a professor's research staff. They leave and work elsewhere. So the idea that Bhrigu was simply undermining his 'competition' is completely false. Instead, the right interpretation is that Bhrigu is a petty, criminal type with no conscience and a willingness to destroy those around him for entertainment or just out of malicious 'fun'. The guy has no ethics. The fact that he lied to get his old job back shows that Bhrigu is purely a 'criminal type' through and through.

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