It's scary though unsurprising that fraud in academic research can have far-fetching repercussions, including the loss of human life. Take for example the case of Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced medical researcher who fabricated a link between autism and vaccines. 25 million kids were studied and millions of dollars spent before his claims could definitively be shown to be utterly baseless (for more on this case, see this handy infographic). Today, many parents still mistrust vaccines and refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated, leaving them susceptible to the highly dangerous measles virus.
A tragic case – though I wonder about the extent to which the pressures inherent in the modern academic rat race (“publish or die!”) may contribute to a culture in which taking shortcuts might be some researchers’ only hope of making names for themselves.
Perhaps it’s not all that different to the pressures found in professional cycling these days – i.e., for some (many?), cheat or fall behind. At least in the case of the Tour de France, though, there aren’t lives on the line. Scary stuff!
In 1998, [Andrew Wakefield] published a paper in Lancet claiming to have established a clear link between administration of the MMR vaccine and the incidence of autism in young children. This was a spectacular claim, given the assumed safety of the vaccine and the fact that virtually all children receive it as infants. [...] Many parents not just in Britain but in any country where the MMR was in use [...] refused to allow their children to be vaccinated. This left them susceptible to the highly dangerous measles virus, incorrectly viewed as a minor infection by their parents.