What would you do if you found out someone had created a company based on technology in your field, but was refusing to produce sample products, earning congratulations and awards from all and sundry, and even taking thousands of dollars from consumers? What if you had no reason to think that the company's use of the technology was valid? And what if you found out the company's CEO had served jail time for fraud?
In this month's issue, you'll read about one such company, Allerca. They want to bring the world a $4,000 hypoallergenic cat. Trouble is, they won't show anyone the kitties, and their science is - well, judge for yourself. We sent our staff writer, Kerry Grens, out to southern California to track down details of the company. Read her report on page 32. Then ask yourself why no one came forward without prompting to question the company.
Elsewhere in this issue (see p. 40), you'll read about a number of complaints about technology transfer offices from academics. Many offices are slow or worse, say some of those who've worked with them. When pushed, however, the majority of those our reporter interviewed wouldn't give specifics about bad behavior or about offices they wouldn't work with.
Scientists are certainly not afraid to open their mouths about other subjects. You can't speak to a US researcher for more than 10 minutes nowadays, it seems, without hearing a complaint about National Institute of Health funding levels. That's good. And don't mention intelligent design to a biologist unless you've got a few hours to kill. Excellent. Some take it further, witness Richard Dawkins' crusade against religion, not just intelligent design. Again, thought-provoking and worthwhile.
Scientists are happy to comment publicly and, sometimes, critically on one another's work, as those who criticize the work of Anders Möller (see p. 26) have over the years. The correspondence sections of journals are alive and well.
So what is it about certain whistleblowing that makes scientists demur? In the case of Allerca, perhaps scientists are afraid the companies they start won't stand up to scrutiny either. Even with the most promising of start-ups, there's an aspect of selling the dream that researchers are naturally uncomfortable with. When it comes to tech transfer, maybe scientists are just using their complaints to improve their chances at negotiation in the future.
But it could be that other researchers don't value this kind of difficult truth-telling enough. We all just want to get along - don't rock the boat, please. After all, we'll give aid and comfort to the enemy - usually seen as meddling government agencies and social conservatives who would bring down evolution - if we don't close ranks. Look what's happened in the climate change debate, many argue: If you give political critics a wedge, they'll drive it far enough to stifle progress.
Sorry, that doesn't work. In the short term, dissent and open debate may seem to be counterproductive. But in the longer term, honesty and an airing of all views is the best policy. That's why we, for example, allow any and all postings on all of our articles online (with the exception of clear libel, slander, or obvious spam.) This means that we get a frustrating number of flat-earthers on certain threads, but if nothing else it should keep scientists aware that there are many, many irrational people actively working against openness. The silence on companies such as Allerca, followed by nods and "I knew its" after frauds have been uncovered, will only give critics of science more ammunition. It is in fact time to commit to our cause - in 2007 let's challenge one another to be universally open and forthright.