Introduction to the Course

BIOLOGY 5011

ETHICS & RESEARCH SCIENCE

Spring 2017

 

All graduate students in the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences are required to complete this course in a satisfactory fashion by the end of their second year. We strongly encourage students to take the course during the second year so that they will have had more experience in lab research.

Course Requirements

BIO 5011 is taken for a Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory grade. To complete the course, a student must attend every class meeting to receive a "Satisfactory" grade; no exceptions. There are 6 class sessions. If it is impossible to attend a meeting (for example, due to illness), that meeting can be made up by attending a discussion in another section. Each student will lead one session (usually in collaboration with one or two other students).

Session Format

As mentioned above, each session will be led by one (or a few) students. These students will have generated a format for the session and prepared materials for the class. In the past, a common format has been a scenario: the session leaders prepare a description of a set of events (the scenario) and a list of 3 to 5 questions which they want the class to deliberate upon. Alternative formats would include a debate, a dramatic presentation, or a case study. In each case, the presenters should have a clear idea of what particular issues they want the class to consider.

The student leaders will develop the format and questions in consultation with a faculty section leader.

Introduction

We are all aware of sensational instances in which ethical lapses have far-reaching and catastrophic consequences for scientists. We are also familiar with much more common situations in which it later becomes clear that not enough thought was given at the time a decision was made. The goal of this course is to provide an opportunity to consider the ethical aspects of some of our activities as scientists.

Every day we make decisions about our activities in the lab and the University community which have an ethical dimension. How are these decisions made? They have a frame of reference with three general components - the scientific, the personal and the communal. Actions are often taken without conscious consideration of any ethical aspect, and in most cases prolonged thought is not necessary. However, the attitudes and influences which affect the decision may be unstated and even unacknowledged, which can result in unexpected or undesirable outcomes.


There are attitudes which arise from convictions about the basic nature of the scientific endeavor. For example, to what extent is the immediate and open communication of observations essential - of your data, your co-worker's data, your friend's data? When can confidentiality be required? What is the nature of “objectivity” in science? Under what conditions is it appropriate to discard an observation? Is it appropriate to report only those experiments whose results agree with an interpretation? How is it possible to prevent our enthusiasm for an interpretation from affecting our objectivity in observing or reporting?

Scientific research is an individual's career. What factors must be considered in generating the "product" of observations and publications? What is the role of publication in the scientific enterprise, and how can the communal purpose be distinguished from the individual’s needs?

Academic scientists also serve as mentors. What ethical concerns arise from this relationship? What concerns arise in designing a training project that also will advance a mentor's career? Are additional concerns present if the trainee works on research sponsored by a company?

Research is a collegial enterprise, in which overall progress relies on the results of the entire community. To what extent must reagents, cells or other research materials be shared? To what extent must information be shared with all scientists, and how much can dissemination be restricted to particular colleagues? What constitutes an adequate description of methods to allow replication of an experiment? The current structure of research has also increased the importance of the collegial activity called “peer review”. What is the role of the reviewer, and what responsibilities does a reviewer have? Often a reviewer will receive a "privileged communication", for example an unpublished manuscript or a grant application, with a request for an expert evaluation. What are the duties of the reviewer to prevent misuse of the information by themselves or other people?

Research findings may have major consequences on society. What additional factors must be considered when the scientific sphere directly interacts with a broader social milieu? What obligations are imposed in the choice of topics, or the conduct and reporting of research? Is an individual scientist responsible for any possible use or misuse of her observations? Other questions are raised by the fact that scientists enjoy relatively high regard in the public eye as impartial observers, and much research is supported by public funds. To what extent is it appropriate for scientists to profit financially from their research? What responsibility does a scientist have to ensure that research findings are accurately reported to the general public?

Recently, instances of misconduct in research have received a great deal of attention. What constitutes misconduct? What is the responsibility of the individual who observes instances of possible misconduct? What is the role of the individual scientist in reducing the likelihood of misconduct?

In addition, some activities in laboratories are controlled by laws, regulations or policies. These activities have been recognized as sufficiently subject to abuse, or the consequences of the activities are sufficiently important, to require such regulation. The decisions are rarely made by scientists, but the regulations do apply to laboratories. These regulations cover a variety of topics: the handling of drugs, chemicals, radioisotopes and biological materials, the use of human and animal subjects, and administrative matters such as personnel practices and financial accounting. In addition to abiding by the law, what are the ethical responsibilities of a scientist? Is there a ranking of “ethical importance” to be assigned to these areas, and how could such a ranking be established? What training is required in the lab? What is an individual's responsibility if a violation is observed?

The consequences of ethical lapses vary but are often severe. Loss of credibility destroys a scientist's contributions, since even the suggestion that observations are not reliably reported necessitates replication before acceptance. Loss of collegial interactions removes one of the major sources of support, encouragement and assistance in research. Violation of laws, of course, can result in the loss of personal freedom and a career. Because of the severity of the possible sanctions, individual scientists and the scientific community as a whole are wrestling with the definition of boundaries. Does a misrepresentation need to be "material" (for example, about a central point in a paper) before it is "misconduct"? What is the difference between bad science and unethical conduct in research? When is a refusal to share material unethical? Is it unethical to misrepresent intellectual contributions by assigning "honorary" authorship, or by refusing to include a contributor as an author?

We must consider our actions as scientists in the various aspects of our life in the laboratory, as mentors, students, colleagues, and citizens. There is seldom a single answer which suffices for all situations: different circumstances may require different decisions. One principle to keep in mind is that it is far better to reflect before acting, than to try to rectify an error once a situation has reached a point of conflict.

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