Bell, Robert. Impure Science: Fraud, Compromise and Political Influence in Scientific Research.
New York: Wiley, 1992.
Robert Bell, a Professor of Economics at Brooklyn College, puts his analysis of fraud in science
simply, and right at the beginning: "My primary purpose is to show that the American scientific
community is as ‘pure' and unbiased as the political machinery that dispenses its patronage and
its funding." (p. xii) He does this simply and directly: he "follows the money." This is because, to
him and to so many others, "(s)cientists cannot conduct scientific inquiries without money." (p.
xii) In our go-go world one can get rich doing science and there are scientists getting rich. They
cut corners and make their fortunes while, presumptively, the rest of us, for our own reasons, sit
back and allow them to fake it.
Fraud and fakery work their wonders in science because of the big bucks to be had. The touted
mechanisms designed to prevent fraud - peer review, the referee system and replication of
experimental findings - do not work because, according to Bell, "powerful individuals" prevent
their operation. For example, the "old boy network" at NSF is in control of the reviewers and the
reviewers for the agency inevitably abuse the system by giving money to themselves. Outsiders,
if they do apply, are assured of being kept outside. His telling illustration of the abuse: the case of
Jon Kalb which is a disgraceful episode.
But it is not only individuals who suffer "politicized science." Bell investigates Big Project
science using the Earthquake Engineering Research Center as his case history. Again, Bell's tale
is a lengthy description of the process of gobbling big bucks from bureaucrats. The creation of
the Buffalo-based SUNY Earthquake Center was a grab which has been severely criticized, and
justly so, since its implementation. And, this is the way Big Science works.
Gigabuck science is illustrated by such cases as Star Wars, the SSC, the Hubble Telescope, and
the Space Station. The politics of Big Science are, again, detailed and one can read of the
Tellerian influence on Ronald Reagan and Congress, the Pentagon's pets in research
opportunities, the politics of compromise in politicized science. Influence and power peddling
Three individual cases of "scientific fraud" are presented: Stephen Bruening, John Darsee and
David Baltimore. Appropriately, Bell spends the most time on the last of these and suggests that
it is beautifully illustrative of science's flawed structure. As Margot O'Toole suggests: "I
therefore sadly conclude that the attitude that scientific careers are much more important than
science has become common among scientists." (p. 143)
And it is easy to find disgraceful cases of "Impure Science" when examining drug companies and
their "research activities." The three big illustrations provided here: Zomax, the Bjork-Shiley
heart valve, and Versed.
Cantekin and Bluestone case is used to illustrate the medical-university-industrial complex.
Again, no winners save in terms of bucks and the medical establishment.
The Pentagon's "Science Game" is illustrative of the disgraceful R&D done by the industrial fat
cats. The illustrations provided are quite good: cost overruns, concurrent production and
research, the revolving doors of business and government. It all adds up to a sorry tale indeed.
And having defined the problem of science in terms of money, Bell offers three "solutions" to the
corruption he details. His solutions are: a la Ernest Fitzgerald (the justly famous whistle-blower
at the Pentagon), the separation of control and funding with the result of reducing the conflict of
interest now such a problem in science. Second, a la Congressman Ted Weiss, legislation
requiring publication of conflicts of interest at the university level and protection for
whistle-blowers at that same level. Third, a la Gene Dong of Stanford, the use of qui tam
provisions of the Federal False Claims act: in other words, put some power into the hands of
It is all too easy to find glaring examples of the kinds of fraud and fakery detailed here and Bell
has done a good job: if one wants a clear statement of the Baltimore case, for example, this is a
good recapitulation and it is up-to-date. On the other hand, there are other cases which go
unmentioned here: Robert Gallo, for example, is briefly discussed regarding the abuse of human
subjects but his long dispute with Luc Montagnier and its multiple implications are ignored.
I find it difficult myself to view "industrialized science" done to win a license from the FDA, or
research done for the Pentagon, or huckstering for drug companies, to be "science" at all. I have
tried to avoid such cases on SCIFRAUD in that "everybody knows that kind of ‘research' is
bought and paid for." One must agree that the military-industrial-university apparatus is flawed.
It may, indeed, be impure but is it "science"?
Is funding THE flaw contemporary science? I am not that much of a Marxist. There is more to
the games of science than big bucks. But if one wishes to use the economic perspective on fakery
in science, this is a very good place to start.