Ethics Hero: Frances Arnold

I’m sure there are a lot of people doing ethical things and not  trying to deliberately make me embarrassed to be a member of the human race—just not on social media, and not in the news. And there is Frances Arnold.

She is an American chemical engineer and the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at  Caltech. Professor Arnold was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018 for pioneering the use of directed evolution to engineer enzymes. “Directed evolution” is a method used in protein engineering that mimics the process of natural selection to steer proteins or nucleic acids toward a user-defined goal. You know..this:

She had published a  paper on enzymatic synthesis of beta-lactams in May 2019 in the Science journal. When she discovered recently that her research could not be replicated, however, Arnold repudiated her own paper, and pronounced it the product of shoddy research.

“For my first work-related tweet of 2020, I am totally bummed to announce that we have retracted last year’s paper on enzymatic synthesis of beta-lactams. The work has not been reproducible,” she posted on Twitter. “It is painful to admit, but important to do so. I apologize to all. I was a bit busy when this was submitted, and did not do my job well.”

A short, clear, Level I apology, and it is refreshing to know that there are scientific geniuses who use the word “bummed,” and who do not write like Timnit Gebru.

On one hand, I wonder if it is easier for a Nobel winner to admit something like this. On the other, I am certain that the more eminent a scientist is, the harder it is to reveal a serious error. No matter how one looks at it, Professor Arnold exhibited integrity, honesty, humility and courage, may have done as much for science by showing how an ethical scientist handles an error as she did with her work on directed evolution.

I would be more certain about that if I understood what the hell directed evolution was.


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18 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Frances Arnold

  1. She looks like a short haired Jessica Lange.

    Any odds that Dr. Michael Mann, Dr. Phil Jones, Dr. Kevin Trenberth, Dr. Gavin Schmidt, et al, (the Rock Stars of Global Warming Inc.) would summon the stones to do likewise?

  2. Didn’t I read somewhere about the lack of women in STEM? Maybe it was something caused by the “math is hard” meme promoted by the Barbie doll. [Note: it is hard, but necessary.]

    Professon Arnold has some serious cred.

    Give me a few more minutes with that diagram, I’ve almost got it figured out…. uhhh, never mind.

    • All the graph means is that you attempt to create the traits you want, then select the germs that show those traits (tossing the others) and run the process again on the best candidates.

  3. “Directed evolution” is a method used in protein engineering that mimics the process of natural selection to steer proteins or nucleic acids toward a user-defined goal. I believe directed evolution studies were was begun on the Island of Dr. Moreau.

    All kidding aside, periodic apologies or retractions relating to scientific works should actually strengthen the validity of propositions of that scientist. Such humility demonstrates the individual’s requirement for scientific rigor rather than pushing an agenda. I am far more willing to take such a scientists word on some matter when he or she is willing to admit fallibility.

  4. I agree that Frances Arnold is an ethics hero but the problem I see is that the only reason that she’s considered an ethics hero is that so many other “scientists” have breached their basic ethics and knowingly presented flawed research to the public as if it’s fact. It’s happening more an more often that flawed agenda driven research is presented as fact when it is far from fact. Frances Arnold did what any reputable scientist should have done.

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