The dance of democracy

Does the American experience reflect flaws in the country's training, supervision, or values, or is this story reflective more of universal human and institutional failures? Now that the topic has been scrutinised for several decades and the list of documented and proven cases reaches into the hundreds, we might reasonably conclude that the urge to cheat seems to be an all-too-human feeling, and the tendency of scientific and academic institutions to prefer to ignore, dismiss, or cover up embarrassing ethical lapses to be (unfortunately) an international problem.

What does seem to be different is how each national research system or government reacts to allegations of fraud. The US scientific agencies, their bureaucratic heads, and Congress engaged for many years in a contentious, strident, and antagonistic battle characteristic of the "dance of democracy": a search for accountability within a complex system unmanageable by normal bureaucratic means. When the scientific community assured Americans that intellectual integrity and political accountability could be maintained through rigorous internal assessment ("peer review"), even in a rapidly expanding research system, they bound themselves to a delicate political bargain. Development of a sense of "entitlement" among the research community, and a lapsed sense of individual accountability, distorted this relationship and contributed to "moral amnesia" on the part of some of the leaders in American science. Congress, of course, always understood the bottom line: budgets change, priorities shift. The well-funded department of today may be pragmatically eliminated in a reorganisation tomorrow. Keeping the bargain was essential for maintaining the status quo.

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