The Real Science Ethics Issues

April 24, 2006

Though outright scientific fraud -- like the cloning scandal involving Hwang Woo-suk of Seoul National University -- grabs headlines, questionable practices that seem much more benign are pervasive, and may have a more damaging long-term effect on the future of research.

Nicholas H. Steneck, a University of Michigan history professor and a consultant at the Office of Research Integrity at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said that most research fabrication is “not very subtle or clever.” If the research is important, Steneck said on Friday at an American Association for the Advancement of Science panel in Washington, other scientists trying to replicate it will often expose the fraud.

When scientists don’t report data that contradicts a conclusion, or take funding from places with agendas that extend beyond science, however, the practices usually go unchecked, and, in the long term, have the potential to erode public confidence in scientific research, he said.

A June 2005 paper in Nature compiled responses from 3,247 scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health. Over 15 percent admitted that they had changed a study design to please a funding source, and 10 percent admitted they had inappropriately put their own name or someone else’s name -- a practice commonly know as “guest authorship” -- on a published paper.

Steneck said that, though practices like guest authorship don’t damage research results, they do damage “the integrity of the practice.”

“I would argue questionable practices are worse than [outright fraud],” he said. He mentioned other practices, like trying to pad a résumé by publishing  the same paper in two different journals, which damages meta-analyses. “This stuff affects policy,” Steneck added.

John Horgan, author of The End of Science, and director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology, cautioned scientists about “taking money from people whose values make them uncomfortable.” Horgan then recounted how he took money from people whose values make him uncomfortable.

Horgan said he received an e-mail last summer from a defense contractor working for a federal agency. At first Horgan thought the contractor had him confused with the John Horgan who has written about Irish terrorism. But, to his surprise, the contractor wanted his “ideas on fighting terrorism,” he said. “They were seeking advice from non-experts who could think outside the box…if this government is turning to people like me…God help us.” Several times, Horgan expressed his contempt for the current administration, and said he “loathes militarism.” But, he said, the offer was flattering, challenging, and the pay was good.

“So I agreed,” he said. “As long as I did not violate my principles, what be the harm?” But, he added, even “the smartest people with the noblest intentions can end up doing things they deeply regret” when the pay is right, and the project is challenging.

He also cited the John Templeton Foundation, which he said has a Christian agenda and puts massive amounts of money toward conversations and research that incorporate both religion and science. Horgan credited the foundation with the fact that 90 American medical schools, he said, offer courses on links between science and spirituality.

Nonetheless, Horgan said he accepted a Templeton fellowship last year to attend talks about science, religion, and philosophy. “I used the same justification as a congressman taking a golf junket from Abramoff,” he said. He has since written about his experience with the fellowship, and said he thinks its important for scientists to speak out about the agendas of funding sources.

If some of these “questionable practices” aren’t addressed by the science community Steneck said, the government will have to take the lead. Steneck added that scientists have been very slow to adopt any procedures that would clamp down on questionable practices. “I know you don’t want to hear this,” Steneck said, “but if institutional and professional commitments do not improve,” the government may have to regulate more to make sure funds aren’t wasted and public confidence doesn’t suffer. As research and economic interests become increasingly intertwined, the integrity of science research is more often at risk.

Felice Levine, executive director of the American Educational Research Association, said that the government is already sticking its hands way too far into the research community. “Political forces have sought to encroach on peer-review,” she said. She noted that, for example, veteran scientists on review boards at institutes at the National Institutes of Health were replaced by people with less scientific background, and who were instructed to critically review human sexuality studies.

Levine said that, now more than ever, “the state of legitimate peer review is not very secure."

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