Controversy proves that science
is battlefield of conflicting ideas

Some familiar with the investigation into Bell Labs researcher Hendrik Schön may be concerned that if scientific impropriety is found, the damage will be profound.

But Cynthia Kuper, chief executive of nanomaterials startup Versilant Nanotechnologies, is less worried that the sky will fall over the controversy.

Kuper, who did her postdoctoral work with nanotube pioneer and Nobel laureate Richard Smalley at Rice University, sees the investigation as a sign that the integrity of nanotechnology research is being defended.

“Just because we’re attempting to turn science into commercial technology doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten that we’re scientists,” she said. “What matters is that the scientific community continues to challenge each other.”

If Schön is exonerated, Kuper doesn’t believe his career will be damaged. She added that the investigation may serve as a wake-up call to “gleaming eyed” people in the small tech world that scientific credibility is critical to commercialization.

Josh Wolfe, managing partner at Lux Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in nanotechnology, seconded Kuper’s sentiment: “Breakthrough science is about reproducibility just as much as the initial claims of progress. It’s the heart of the scientific method, and the difference between science and science fiction.”

He noted further that “the accelerating pace of discovery puts a lot of pressure on top researchers to publish results and keep their rock-star status. The investigation will be a yield sign to this race track, and force other researchers to pause in lieu of being ostracized by the scientific community.”

Ben Savage, an associate with the private equity firm Wasserstein & Co., said that “one nice thing about scientific peer review for the investment community is that you typically don’t question someone’s scientific credentials.” But now he expects that investors will “need to scrub each claim made by a science group a little cleaner instead of relying on reputation or credentials alone.”

In the short run, Savage believes, the controversy will force investors to reassess the credentials of their scientific teams. And while the impact of the investigation may be limited, he believes “there will be an added cost to investors in terms of time for due diligence.”

As Mark Modzelewski sees it, the investigation’s impact has to be gauged from a business perspective. “Particularly since it’s coming out of a business lab, and a company that has been in trouble,” said the executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance. “This has opened the door for other small tech science to be more closely scrutinized.” In the long run, that may be good for the field, he conceded.

He does give Bell Labs credit for its decision to face the issue quickly and directly. “It shows that the place is still controlled by people who will work to make sure the truth comes out, one way or the other.”

But what if the disputed graphs turn out to be accurate and the buckyball results are successfully duplicated? Will Schön’s career be hurt by the hint of misconduct even if the work is validated?

Absent conclusive evidence of fraud or misbehavior, Grant expected that Schön would come out all right, and hoped he would be cleared.

The Bell Labs investigation has also raised questions about the peer review and editorial processes in scientific journals. Did Science and Nature drop the ball in publishing flawed work from a “hot” scientist? Were Schön’s papers not as carefully vetted by the peer review process because of his status?

Donald Kennedy, Science editor-in-chief, said in a written statement that “we are going to wait for the investigation that Bell Labs has put in place. It’s a very good plan, and we’re going to do nothing until they reach a set of findings.”

While the small tech world will have to wait a while longer for this episode to play itself out, at least one person is glad that the controversy has come to light.

Bill Trimmer, a Bell Labs scientist during the 1980s and editor of the Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems from 1990 to 1997, said that the investigation “demonstrates that the process of science is at work in nanotechnology.”

More important, Trimmer said, the controversy shows that science “is not a perfect road to truth. It’s a battlefield of conflicting ideas.”

Also in this report
Did Bell Labs’ rising nanotech star commit the cardinal sin of science?
Probe into Bell Labs scientist has some serious implications


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