A friend of mine has started to wonder how to find scientists he will feel comfortable working with. For the past year, he has been working in a lab in a very prestigious institution. He wrote me about it:

The director of my lab is a very successful scientist. She is also director of the research facility. Our personalities blended well initially, but then we grew apart. She is very nice, very busy, and impressively ambitious. Despite her genuine desire to be nice, honest, and good teacher, her ambition is supreme — above honesty and integrity from my point of view.

My biggest issue has been her caring more about her own advancement than about the discovery of truth. She does not blatantly lie about her research results, but she profoundly modulates her research efforts based upon what she believes will give her the success she seeks. I realize that on the face of it there is not anything unethical about ambition directing the evolution of research. However, I am not comfortable with the degree to which the research in this group is shaped by its leader’s ambition.

What has had the biggest effect on me is realizing that it isn’t just her. The rest of my group has allowed her to pursue her strategies. I have realized that I don’t want to pursue research in a culture where ambition is above all, particularly the pursuit of truth.

What’s an example? I asked. He replied:

We had an interesting result in a study we did. Accompanying this result was an unusual artifact. It is my impression that my director did not want to publish our good result because she was hesitant to admit that we observed this unusual artifact. I believe that the unusual artifact could negatively impact the use of fMRI to investigate pharmacological drugs that affect the brain — a big research market. It is not a lie to not publish a result. However, I don’t like not being able to speak frankly about the implications of a result.

This is an advantage of self-experimentation I hadn’t thought of.