Wednesday, March 05, 2014

No Corporate Shill

I'm a scientist at Monsanto. One of the common criticisms leveled at me and my colleagues is that we are biased because we work for a corporation. Aside from despots and dictators, nothing pisses me off more than someone implying that I tossed out all of my scientific training and integrity the minute I walked into the doors of Monsanto. Those accusations do nothing more than show the complete lack of understanding of scientific training by the accuser. As a scientist, you are trained to go where the data take you and no scientist with any morals would create, alter, ignore, nor falsify data in support of a pet idea. Never in my seventeen years at Monsanto has anyone told me what my experiments should show or what my data should mean.

I was directly exposed to scientific misconduct in the early days of my scientific career - as a graduate student. My first project in grad school was working on the inhibition of an enzyme used by HIV to replicate. Our lab was collaborating with another laboratory at Rice University to test some compounds that made up a large natural product that showed the ability to inhibit the AIDS virus. Our initial results were promising and we expanded our screening to similar compounds. Somewhere along the way, the assay became highly variable and I spent several months troubleshooting. After months with lack of progress, I shelved the project and moved on to another one.

 Fast forward three years. I was nearing graduation and had already arranged for my postdoctoral fellowship. One morning I walked into the lab and found a manuscript on my desk. The subject of the paper was the project I had first worked on. As I read through the paper, I quickly realized that all of my negative or contradictory data were ignored to make a promising conclusion about a promising new treatment route for HIV. I approached my adviser and told him that we couldn't publish the paper because he had ignored all of the negative data in writing it. He said he only ignored data that could  be rationally explained away. Having been the only student to work on this project, I knew this not to be the case. The next day before he left for a two week vacation, he left the manuscript on my desk again. The paper had three different title pages - one with my name first, one with my adviser's name first and my name second, and one without my name. I was instructed to choose which title page and mail the manuscript. I was also told that if I did not include my name on the paper, I would not get my PhD.

I went to the member of my graduate committee that helped with that project and told him what was going on. He instructed me to approach the chair of the department, who was also a member of my committee and explain the situation to him. The chairman told me not to send the paper and that as a committee we would go over all of my data and decide how to proceed. When my adviser came back my committee met. It was quickly determined that the paper was not suitable for publication and that my other project was suitable for graduation. I started my postdoc a couple of months later and graduated that fall. My adviser did not receive tenure and left research the following year.

I don't really think that I did anything extraordinary by standing up for sound science. I look around at my colleagues, many of whom I've worked with for years, and I know without a doubt none of them would compromise their science at the orders of anyone. I also know without a doubt that no one would ever ask me to make my data say anything other than what they say. As I reflect on those late days of graduate school, I'm thankful I had that experience and that it has given me a heightened sense of rigor when performing experiments or interpreting data.

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