#169 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 7          July 1995

FORUM—from our readers

Whatever Results You Want!

My background and training were in a place--a location which I won't name--where one always had to obey superiors.  Thus I was not surprised that in graduate school, my major professor insisted that the experiments produce the results he expected (or wanted).

It wasn't too difficult to satisfy him.  Graphs could be altered to be "correct" or controls could be adjusted to yield "better" data.  (It wasn't that we were working on a treatment for a disease or safety barriers for radiation.  We weren't trying to publish our results in an international journal, and I didn't expect anyone else in the world to want to repeat my work.)

I was being trained to read the literature, learn the techniques, and do experiments.  Therefore, I didn't worry if the data were fudged a bit.  What I did worry about was satisfying my professor and receiving my advanced degree.

Through perfect grades, very good recommendations from my professor, and other personal contacts, my dream came true:  I was offered a research position in a small U.S. company.  The first months, I spent setting up the lab and learning about the company.  It was perfect!

But, my background stayed with me:  I couldn't do an experiment without first discussing with the director what results were expected.  He seemed to appreciate this close involvement with my work. 

Fortunately, most of my work yielded the “right” results (with no fudging).  True to my training, however, I once again found myself altering “wrong” results to please the supervisor.  It didn't bother me, as I was sure he "knew best."  I considered myself a valuable and dedicated member of the company, and felt not an iota of guilt.

After eighteen months with the company, when I presented my work at one of our research seminars, one of the scientists questioned an inconsistency that I had missed.  It turned out that this inconsistency was critical to our work, and was further examined by the vice president and several other scientists, including the director.

At the same time, my technician began telling others that she suspected that I was altering data.  I panicked, and tried to keep the notebooks away from everyone.  I even made an effort to redo an entire notebook. 

As they say, "all hell broke loose."  I denied data tampering, and faked "shock" at being accused.  But when my notebooks and my technician's notes were examined, there was no hiding the fact that I altered data, and there wasn't a soul in the company who didn't know of my transgression.  I've never felt worse--my stomach was churning, and I couldn't look people in the eye.

You probably figure I was fired on the spot.  But that's not what happened.  My director spent a day talking with me on the bench of a local park.  He heard, for the first time, how I was trained, of how I had to think first about satisfying my superior.  Even though he seemed understanding, I was sure this was my exit session.  Of all the people in the company, he was the one most damaged by my activities, since he was ultimately responsible for my work.

But, after hours of baring my soul, he asked if I could return to work and provide real data.  He ensured me my work would be tightly scrutinized, and somehow I would have to earn the trust of my colleagues.  I promised I would make up for the damage by becoming the best researcher he would ever have.  He took the risk of asking the vice president for permission to retain me. 

Somehow, my director saw, over my transgression, that I had great value.  Four years later, I am a senior scientist overseeing four technicians; my shame has been erased, and I've made key contributions to our programs.

At the university where I received my degree, there have been (and will be) many graduates trained to "obey."  If you are supervising one of them, I'd suggest you make it crystal clear that you want quality results, not "the right" results.  If you are a graduate of such a university, heed this story.  You won't be as lucky as I was to have a "one-in-a-million" supervisor.


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