Dear Brad,
as fellow faculty member of UC, I too am deeply disturbed by the John Yoo case, and wanted to give you a perspective on how misconduct allegations would be approached in the sciences.

The core principle of handling scientific misconduct cases is that any allegation of significant misconduct MUST receive a careful and fair official investigation to determine the facts of the case.  Anything less would undermine public confidence in the entire system of research.  For example, funding agencies like NIH require us to take our graduate students through very thorough ethics courses in which we go through example scenario after example scenario to analyze the ethical issues involved.  I can tell you as a matter of course that the right answer presented in any of those example cases where there is an allegation of significant misconduct is that the university must investigate to determine the facts of the case.  Obviously the possible outcomes are 1. the allegations are contradicted by the total evidence, and the committee clears the “defendant” of any allegations of wrong doing; 2. the evidence is insufficient to ascertain definite wrong doing, so no action is taken; 3. the evidence verifies some or all of the allegations, and the university must determine appropriate actions.  Equally obviously, in evaluating the evidence the assumption is always “innocent until proven guilty.”  I’m not certain of this, but I think outcome #3 is pretty unusual — much of the time the outcome is #1 or #2 (“not guilty”).  And this highlights one of the principal functions of the “always investigate” policy: it clears the innocent of any lingering shadow of suspicion caused by the initial allegations.

Investigating a misconduct allegation is just Standard Operating Procedure.  Those who say that opening a fact finding investigation cannot be considered because to do so would be “defamatory” to Yoo confess either ignorance or deliberate disregard of the university’s misconduct policies.  Such a violation of normal policy seems hard to explain except in political terms.  If Yoo were a UC doctor accused of providing medical advice during torture in some Third World dictatorship, a UC misconduct investigation would simply be automatic!

I also want to suggest that the universally recognized policies for handling scientific misconduct cases provide a useful point of comparison for assessing the appropriateness of an investigation in this case.  By the way, there are standard textbooks of case examples that we use for scientific ethics courses; I can get you a title if you’re interested.  Two perspectives:

  • a scientist’s responsibility for ethical conduct does not end outside his/her work in the university.  If a faculty member engages in misconduct while consulting for a third party (for example, consulting to a drug company for clinical trials of a new drug), the university still has a responsibility to investigate allegations of misconduct.
  • the well established precedent of misconduct investigations provides a “scale of severity” of misconduct which we can compare to this case.  Let’s start from the “light end” of the spectrum.
    • Example: a scientist is accused of knowingly publishing experiments and conclusions that are substantially the same as a previous publication, without citation.  Policy: this is a serious accusation of plagiarism, and must be investigated.
    • Example: a scientist is accused of fabricating results, resulting in a misleading publication.  Policy: this is a serious allegation, and requires an investigation.
    • Example: a scientist is accused of withholding some information about possible risks of a treatment to patients participating in a research study.  Policy: this could possibly have resulted in human harm, and is an EXTREMELY serious allegation requiring investigation.
    • Example: a doctor is accused of providing medical advice on whether torture of a prisoner can continue (“You can resume now.”). Policy: WTF?!?!?!  Such a Nuremberg-level accusation is so far off the scale of our misconduct meter as to be unthinkable in a scientific ethics course.
    • Example: John Yoo is accused not of participating marginally in the already ongoing torture of a single prisoner, but of forging the legal justification for launching a policy of torture, to be applied to many, many prisoners. Policy: ???  What this calls for is sober reflection, followed by action, namely an investigation into the facts of the case.

If the university policy says we must investigate accusations of lesser types of misconduct such as plagiarism, we must certainly take accusations of initiating a policy of torture *at least* as seriously.  Equally well, if the university declines to conduct a thorough investigation of Yoo’s Torture Memo, it would be hard not to see the diligent prosecution of comparatively “petty crimes” like plagiarism as a bit of a sick joke, rather than justice.

Feel free to post or quote this if you want.  And thanks for raising this important issue in the thoughtful but unflinching way that you have.

Yours,

Christopher Lee
Professor, Dept. of Chemistry & Biochemistry
UCLA

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