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Sabotaging Science

At the University of Michigan, it took a hidden-camera sting operation to uncover the truth behind Heather Ames' mysterious problems with her experiments, says Nature's Brendan Maher. It was discovered that one of her colleagues, former postdoc Vipul Bhrigu, has been systematically sabotaging her work over the course of several months by tampering with her experiments and poisoning her cell culture media in order to get ahead of her, Maher says. While Bhrigu's actions are "surprising," Maher says, they are likely not unique. Scientists are often driven by competition for jobs, grants, and tenure, a structure some say is to blame for acts like Bhrigu's, Maher adds.

In the Pipeline's Derek Lowe says he's surprised things like this don't happen more often. Competition is fierce and academia is rife with "unstable personalities," he says. But such sabotage strikes at the heart of scientific endeavor, where trust plays an important role, he adds. "There's no way science could work if you automatically assumed that everything in the literature or in every presentation was probably a lie," he says. "And there's no way it can work if someone's going to sabotage experiments, either."

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