Monday, May 14, 2012

The PI's Nightmare

In the last post, I described a nightmare situation for any PI.  A trusted postdoc has turned out to be a fraud and has skipped town after fabricating data for a major project of yours. The postdoc also turns out to have lied about his Ph.D. degree--he never received it.

At this point, you may be thinking about all the things the PI could have done to avoid landing in this situation, and I could go through these points one by one.  However, at this stage in the situation, none of that is going to help.  Also, one could argue that taking all possible precautions does not guarantee that such a situation will never happen.  Especially if you are dealing with a real con artist. 

The term, "con", comes from confidence, which is what a con artist gains from his victims and allows him to succeed.  Such people are highly skilled at social manipulation and understand how to gain people's confidence.  Fortunately, there are not that many con artists who end up in the field of science.  However, scientists may on occasion encounter such people, either people within the field of science or people peripheral to science. 

For the latter situation, there is a very interesting film called House of Games, written and directed by David Mamet.  You may be more familiar with Mamet's other films, such as The Spanish Prisoner.  Both films are about confidence men (and women).  House of Games, however, features a female psychologist, Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) who becomes the target of a group of grifters led by Mike (Joe Mantegna). 

Margaret has published a successful book, which has led to professional recognition, modest fame, and a small fortune.  It's this book and consequent fortune that have attracted the attention of this gang of con artists.  Their leader, Mike, designs an elaborate con to ensnare Margaret and eventually relieve her of her money.  They play on her professional interests and desire to find another subject to research and write that may lead to another successful book. 

The set-up is initiated by a young, small-time gambler, who goes to Margaret for treatment.  He tells her that he owes a large sum of money and will be killed unless he pays (which he can't).  Margaret decides to intervene and visits the man the gambler owes. Turns out that it's Mike, the con man.  Mike agrees to forgive the young gambler's debt if Margaret agrees to accompany him to a poker game as his girlfriend and help him spot the "tells" of the other card players.  Margaret immediately sees an entry into an underworld that she can exploit for her own professional goals.

Margaret falls headlong into the trap set by this gang of grifters and eventually loses a large sum of money.  The con is so clever that Margaret does not realize she's been first.  By chance, she discovers the ruse and proceeds to turn the tables on Mike.  I won't reveal all that transpires, except to say that the film is intriguing on many levels and carefully crafted to keep you guessing until the end. It's not as well done as Mamet's later films, and one could quibble about the acting, especially Lindsay Crouse (see previous posts about female stereotypes in film). 

My point in describing this little film is that it is a cautionary tale about a successful female professional who is taken in by unscrupulous people, even though she knows she's dealing with people who are basically criminals.  Despite that knowledge, she's still fooled by Mike, who cleverly gains her confidence.  And that's all it takes.

How likely is it that a science professional might be victimized by a con artist?  Although the Mamet film is fictional, the postdoc story I described in the previous post is not.  The situation I described happened to my adviser (I was one of the graduate students working on the project).  I also was fooled once by a student worker who was falsifying his time sheets and forging signatures on them.  Fortunately for me, the student worker's actions did not threaten my entire research program or my job.  These experiences tell me that such situations are not that unusual in science, although perhaps not as prevalent as in other professions. 

Credit: Still image from House of Games, Filmhaus

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Catch Me If You Can

Imagine the following situation:

You are a PI in charge of a large project to conduct an environmental assessment of the potential impact of a large Energy Utility on an adjacent natural ecosystem.  With the sizable grant awarded to you, you hire a postdoctoral researcher, technicians, and graduate students to conduct the work.  It is the responsibility of the postdoc, in addition to conducting the field research in his specific area of expertise, to collate all the data from all tasks and to write the final report to the Energy Utility.  

Although this postdoc is fresh out of graduate school, he is an experienced teacher and administrator who returned to graduate school to get a Ph.D. later in life.  You feel very confident in his abilities, especially because of his maturity and past experience, which is a primary reason you hired him for this job.  He is gregarious and well-liked by all on the research team and appears to be a diligent worker.  Things seem to go well during the data acquisition phase; everyone is working hard, spending many hours in the field and laboratory.  As the project is nearing the final months, the postdoc announces that he has accepted an offer to return to his previous position (in another country) but, not to worry, he's almost finished writing the report.  You are not worried because you have high confidence in him and you've been working closely with the technicians and graduate students who are responsible for particular aspects of the report and have also been shown portions of the work supervised by the postdoc.  As often happens in large projects, there are delays.  When it becomes clear that the report cannot be finalized by the date the postdoc must leave, you acquire a no-cost extension for the project and the postdoc agrees to finish up the writing remotely.  

A day or two after the postdoc's departure, you receive a message from him saying that his briefcase containing all the data files and the only copy of the draft report was stolen in the airport.  He's very sorry about this, but he won't be able to meet his obligations.  You are stunned and try to contact him.  All your efforts to communicate fail.  You try not to panic, thinking that at worst, you will just reconstruct everything from the copies of the files he left.  You meet with the technicians and students and explain the situation.  

Your head technician begins delving into the files and discovers some puzzling things.  After several days, the technician comes to your office and tells you that he thinks the postdoc fabricated much of the data he was supposed to have collected personally.  The only data he's confident of is what he and the other technicians and students collected.  However, cross-checking the original datasheets from field notebooks and lab books indicates that the postdoc cooked some of the summary files (altered the data) so that everything will have to be reconstructed from the original datasheets.  And the data the postdoc collected will have to be discarded and either recollected or eliminated from the report. 

You begin to investigate further and discover that the postdoc never really received a Ph.D.--his graduate committee failed him when it became clear he had fabricated some of his dissertation research.  The letters of reference from the adviser and other faculty to you were all forged.  Because the letters were from well-respected professors at a credible university and department, you never bothered to check with the postdoc's graduate school to determine that he actually received his degree from that university....

In other words, you've been the victim of an elaborate con.

If you were the PI in this situation, what would you do?  If you were one of the students or technicians and saw something that made you suspicious, would you report it to the PI?  If you (PI or team member) later encountered this person at a conference or other venue, what would you do?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Overturning the Stereotype

Recently, someone sent me a link to a website called This is What a Scientist Looks Like.  The site, which contains hundreds of photos posted by scientists, is part of a project designed to "challenge the stereotypical image of a scientist".

It's interesting to see what people submit. Some post photos of themselves at work; others at play. Some are serious and some are silly. Many show the scientists with their families. Some people noted in the description accompanying their photo that they have experienced how other people are surprised when faced with a scientist (them) who does not fit the stereotype (white, male, labcoated, nerdy). 

I've also occasionally encountered people who expressed incredulity upon being told my profession.  Some of these occasions were when I reentered the country and went through passport control. Because I carry an official passport (as a US government employee), I'm often asked what type of work I do for my agency. When I respond that I'm a scientist, I almost always get a double-take look from the passport officer.  Sometimes, they frown and question me further about exactly what I do science-wise, clearly not believing me. I can't imagine how they think I managed to get an official US passport using false information about my government job, but that's the implication. 

This third degree treatment always catches me off guard.  It's intimidating being questioned like this, and I automatically begin to feel guilty under the suspicious gaze of the US Customs agent.  Whatever I say sounds defensive and false.  Sometimes, the frown deepens, and the agent scrutinizes my documents some more.  I cringe and imagine the agent is going to next loudly announce to his supervisor and all my fellow travelers, "Hey, Joe, this lady here says she's a scientist.  Could you come over here?"  I briefly contemplate saying,  "Yes, I'm a real scientist who studies Important Scientific Topic and I'm just returning from a trip to Very Foreign Country where I gave the keynote address at a Major Scientific Conference."  However, I don't want to antagonize the agent and end up in one of those back rooms. So I just smile and confirm that what it says on my paperwork is correct. 

Later, I  fantasize about carrying around a copy of my doctorate diploma or my produce along with my passport and other travel papers.  Or perhaps I could just whip out my iPad already linked to my professional webpage describing my scientific credentials and activities? 

In the meantime, I hope the This Is What a Scientist Looks Like project will help change the public's perception of who can be a scientist.