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The home of the Nobel: who will blow the whistle on academia?

Sweden has been in the limelight for the past few weeks as the Nobel Prizes were announced and a new cohort of laureates revealed. This year, however, was a bit different than previous years because of the Macchiarini Affair, which involved both the Nobel Assembly and the internationally renowned Swedish University Karolinska Institute (KI). The Italian “star surgeon” Paolo Macchiarini developed a new method for organ transplants using stem cells, and described his method as a success in articles and interviews. He then performed operations based on his research which turned out to be fatal. He has since been dismissed from his post at the KI following allegations of scientific and clinical misconduct, and now even faces criminal charges.  As a result, two former KI vice-chancellors were removed from the institute’s Nobel Assembly, which is responsible for awarding the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, due to their roles in the controversy around Macchiarini. The Affair has been labeled the “biggest scandal” in Swedish medicine and is accused of tarnishing the reputation of the Nobel Prize. The 2000 Nobel Prize Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, Arvid Carlsson, even argued that the 2016 Nobel Prize Awards should be cancelled because of the scandal.

The Whistleblowers

While news of Macchiarini’s misconduct shook the broader scientific community, the warning signs were apparent for many years to his colleagues; at least four medical doctors that work with Macchiarini at KI tried to blow the whistle on his misconduct. But instead of action on the part of KI, they were threatened with police reporting and dismissal from their positions. In 2015, Macchiarini was investigated and even cleared of charges of scientific misconduct by KI. In the end, it took a documentary holding Macchiarini accountable to spark some action.

In April 2016 the four medical doctors were vindicated when they received the Whistleblower of the Year Award from Transparency Sweden International for speaking up against the gross ethical misconduct perpetrated by Macchiarini. The sad part is that their experience of being ignored and not taken seriously is common in academia. Research shows many healthcare personnel are unwilling to speak up about workplace misconduct for fear it will sabotage their careers.

A culture of silence

The Macchiarini case shows what can happen when the workplace operates around “group thinking” and a culture of silence. The damages of this workplace culture have been shown to extend beyond the academic healthcare sector and into other prestigious projects, like the United States Space Program. For instance, many scientists recognized faulty engineering in the making of the 1986 Challenger and the 2003 Columbia but did not speak up or could not get their superiors to act. In the case of the Challenger explosion, an O-ring seal failed on a rocket booster, causing a breach that let loose a stream of hot gas, which ignited an external fuel tank. Scientists believe the Columbia disintegrated after re-entering Earth’s atmosphere because of a piece of insulating foam that broke off from an external tank during the launch. Clearly, in every facet of the scientific endeavor, authorities who ignore the concerns of their employees are met with catastrophic results.

The vulnerable position as an ECR

While the consequences of a toxic chain of command within academia are not as visible as within NASA, they similarly have a negative impact on workplace culture. In my experience, as a grad student or ECR you are supposed to know your place in the hierarchy, even if this can differ between departments, universities and countries. Young researchers can find it particularly hard to voice their concerns because of power relations within the hierarchy. In these kinds of environments, it is not easy to have a conflicting view, and as an ECR you are extremely vulnerable, as you need the approval of faculty to advance in academia.

Increasing inequality within science also contributes to an environment where ECRs may not be comfortable sounding an alarm for misconduct. Wages for the top scientists are increasing while others are left behind. Just recently, findings from Nature’s annual salary survey revealed that many scientists think they have made an economic sacrifice for their career. This also reveals the tight spot many ECRs can find themselves in, and explains how easy it is to become too dependent on their research group and PI in order to get further funding and to get their research career started. This can have especially serious consequences when young female scientists are being sexually harassed by their supervisor, and because of their vulnerable status, do not file a complaint because of fear of not just the harassing supervisor but that their career will be in jeopardy.

When this happens, an ECR must be assured that “blowing the whistle” means being taken seriously, and that appropriate steps will be taken to investigate their concerns. We need to be assured that a future career in science is still there to pursue. Otherwise, these uncertainties regarding an academic career can lead scientists to stay silent out of fear, or choose other career paths entirely.

Featured Image: A bird’s eye photo of the 2013 Nobel Prize Award Ceremony. Copyright © Nobel Media AB 2013. Photo: Alexander Mahmoud.


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