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Just because you can...

Week of 7 Dec 09

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...does not mean you should.

I think my first exposure to bold-faced corruption occurred in elementary school. Living in Ohio, I was interested in an event called the "Soapbox Derby" which consisted of my peers making it to a grand finale downhill race in Akron, Ohio. The cars, gravity powered, were supposed to be built by the boys (girls were not yet allowed) who raced them.

Having been exposed to using power tools at about the age of 6 or so, I was a pretty decent woodworker by the time I was ten. Yet, when I saw pictures of these cars, I knew that neither I nor any other ten year old could possibly have made one of the winners. These things were a monocoque FRP body with high surface polish and looked like they came out of a Boeing prototype studio. "Yeah, right, some 10 year old kid whipped one of those out in his basement," was my reaction.

In high school, I was in the local 4-H Club, which I have mentioned here before. If you had chosen raising pigs or a steer as your summer project, the animal(s) were supposed to be separately penned in the spring and then taken to the fair in the fall. You were supposed to keep an accurate accounting of the feed and so forth, day-by-day, in your project book. It was a well-known widespread practice, amongst the winners, to wait until fair time and then pick the best out of dad's herd to claim as the one you had raised all summer. The last year I was in 4-H, I was the leader, and along about mid-August, a couple of weeks before the fair, I performed an audit of all the projects in our club. I actually went around and looked at them, forcing these characters to pen up animals for at least a day to claim as their project animals. I don't know if it helped anyone learn anything about honesty, but I tried.

So, it is said, those in glass houses should not throw stones, and I'll have to admit to many indiscretions of my own over the years, but I keep trying. It is the ones that are either so numb or so calloused they have adopted deception as their personal creed which bother me. Realistically, if you tell me you have never told a "white lie" you just did.

We adults are far more sophisticated in our chicanery. I know of a paper mill where, regularly, the corporate audit department comes in and throws out engineers and purchasing agents that are being paid by suppliers for their decisions. Giving this a lot of thought over the years, it appears the problem is not with the engineers and purchasing agents placed in the mill--it is the local suppliers. I am convinced you could send employees of absolute purity into this mill and within a couple of years they would be corrupted. The local suppliers know one way to operate--dangle goodies in front of the purchasers. Crudely, if you parade naked virgins in front of a priest long enough, they will cave in to the temptation--they are only human.

The general problems described here are particularly rampant in today’s university research settings around the world. Whether dependent on public or private funding, we rightfully (in the largest since) hold researchers accountable. Unfortunately, this protocol requires them to guess what the results might be in order to get the funding. Often, the results are not what were expected, forcing the researcher to one of two very poor choices: admit failure or falsify the data. This system puts the "cart before the horse." The very idea of doing research is to find out something that was previously unknown or unproven. Forcing researchers to claim ahead of time what the results will be is disingenuous and unfair to all parties involved.

In the old days in animation (I am not sure how they do it with modern computer aided animation) all "cells" (as each frame was called) were created by hand. The master animators made about every 10th to 15th cell. Junior animators, called "tweeners" did all the in-between frames, a very boring but important job. The tweeeners' work made the cartoon smooth, but it was the master animators' work that defined the overall flow. To become a master animator took years of training and experience.

Perhaps such a lead could be followed in research funding. Master researchers (and I would expect this to be a very high standard of experience, say 25 or 30 years) could be eligible for funding that had no strings attached--they would be funded by special sources that allowed them total freedom of concept proof in their area of expertise. Journeymen (person?) researchers would be funded against the current backdrop of expectations with one additional step: their work would be solely to take the master researchers' proof of concept findings and turn them into practical applications. In my version of the ideal research world, the ratio of masters to journeymen would be about 1:10.

But back to the general problem of integrity, for this is what we have really been talking about in this entire column. If you have not tried it in a while, I suggest you do. As a society, general integrity must abound if we are not to degenerate into chaos. I have seen many mid-life hotshot managers that thought playing things a little close to the edge of integrity was smart business. I have also seen a number of the same people felled by career disasters and disease. The lesson I have learned is this: sooner or later, all of us are humbled. If you are flying high and think things will not catch up with you, trust me, they will, and most times, sooner than you think.

If this column feels slightly familiar, it should. It is a different slant on the one titled "Do the right thing" (Week of 20 Oct 08). We are back here because it is important.

We talk about the integrity of our safety gear. Maybe we can use that in reverse of our normal safety learnings here. If you hear the word integrity, no matter the context, think of your own before you take another step.

Be safe and we will talk next week.


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