Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Need for Ethical Science

A couple months ago the results of a study published in the journal Nature showed that about 1 of 3 scientists doing research admitted to poor ethics, which typically means they fudged data at some point in their studies. The study surveyed over one thousand researchers.

This is disturbing. Science has as a goal to find the truths in Nature. When scientists submit articles for publications in the top journals of their respective fields, it is assumed the primary research was completed with honor and respect for the truth, no matter if what was measured and observed fits in with preconceived ideas/attitudes/beliefs or not. While articles submitted to the major journals are peer-reviewed and go through a series of re-edits, it is impossible for the reviewers to be one hundred percent sure of whether an honest effort was made or not. If a dishonest paper makes it through the process, it may be years before that dishonesty is discovered, most likely through other independent checks of the experiments that lead to opposing or conflicting results and/or conclusions.

One trend that has developed in fields such as biochemistry, genetics, biomedical engineering, and so on, is large numbers of researchers going off and developing private companies that try to develop a new drug, procedure, or technology for specific needs, in addition to their university research. Private enterprise springs the ultimate motive to slightly tweak data or develop overly optmistic conclusions - of course, I mean monetary profit. In fact, when I was talking with acquaintances who are in the administration at the medical research facility of a major university hospital, I was shocked by the lack of collaboration and sharing of information on cancer research between their labs and another nearby major university facility. The reason given was largely because of the race to get patents and private funding from pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms. With potential billions of dollars in such areas of research for the next wonderdrug or life-saving procedure, of course some may weaken under the stress to win the race and miss something in the data or be a tad sloppy with analysis, or feel the need to make results just a tad better than they really are in order to get a piece of the money pie. Such actions not only go against the science code of ethics, but also can conceivably delay the process that can mean unnecessary deaths or progress in an entire field. It is likely that real collaboration and sharing of knowledge between the two university facilities could lead to breakthroughs in a more timely manner than the two working in secrecy, but the need for money and glory get in the way, and weaken all of science in the process when unethical behavior enters the fray.

4 comments:

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jo_jo said...

It's bad, isn't it? I thought I was being paranoid so I'm glad to see someone else getting suspicious of the process. Here in Vancouver a doctor was fired for blowing the whistle on a new drug for which she was conducting the clinical trial. The story is murky but it sounds like the drug company put pressure on the hospital to do something about it.

I'm also concerned that in the field I'm in (gifted people) there isn't an obvious desire to come together for the greater good. Instead, people seem to be staking out academic turf by creating models and then publishing like crazy, disagreeing or agreeing with other models, showing how they relate, etc. I think this is the fault of the academic system - publish or perish!

My understanding of the tenure system is that it is supposed to prevent the type of problems you speak of. However, competition for tenure is so intense that ethics may well get sidelined in the race. And it's always nice to supplement a paycheque! It seems to me that when science gets into bed with business or livelihood, the ethics revert to the lowest common denominator. I wish I had a solution to offer.

Erica said...

I don't understand why this is a problem. It seems to me that people who go into science in the first place are looking for a fulfilling profession in which they can find fundamental truths about the universe and help people. If they want money, there are a million jobs that pay better than research, so why even go into science? For this reason, I've always thought of the scientific community as one governed more by hard work and curiosity than politics. Am I wrong?

vonny said...

Jo,

You bring up a good point about tenure. 'Publish or perish' is one of the laws of the land when it comes to tenure at the major research universities as well as some national labs, so this pressure can make scientists show their human weaknesses. And money and the prestige that comes along with it is the other factor.

Erica, don't be too surprised. People are people, and many (most?) are weak in situations where opportunity knocks. Even those you would least suspect to fall to temptation, such as some in the clergy, do unethical and immoral things. It is unfortunate, to say the least, but it is also reality in science as well as any other field or profession. It does not help that our society promotes success as those 'with the most toys,' and certain individuals can be guided by such a worldview, no matter what they do for a living and no matter what their original intentions may have been. On the bright side, a good majority apparently don't fudge the data. :-)

Cheers,
Mark