Ethical Conundrums

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Medical students, before commencing their duties as compassionate caregivers, take the Hippocratic oath, promising to always treat the ill to the best of their ability and to make decisions that are in the best interest of their patients.

Law students, before beginning their duties as defenders of the world, take an oath of professionalism, promising to honor and advocate for the community with integrity and cooperation towards others.

Now, let’s talk about scientists, the lab-coat wearing, world-saving breed of professionals, most commonly seen in their natural habitat surrounding long-standing rows of benches usually filled with biological and chemical substances that they use to save lives. Where is their oath?

Scientists are the ones responsible for discovering drugs that could stop us from aging, for creating therapies that could cure cancer or for inventing miniaturized medical devices that could track health of vital organs by being in the blood stream.

Hopefully, you are convinced that scientists have careers that are very important for the workings of a society. So why don’t scientists have an oath?

Let’s take a time tour starting in the 1800’s. Meet, Alfred Nobel - a chemist and the inventor of dynamite, after whom the very famous Nobel Prize is named. Although his intention in developing dynamite was to create something more stable than nitroglycerine, and even though he is not responsible for killing millions around the world, he is still accountable for creating the invention that did. But, it is important to mention here that Nobel did establish the Nobel Foundation, which is funded by the wealth that he accumulated during his lifetime.

Next, meet Shiro Ishii, a microbiologist who had no ethical conscience while unleashing deadly pathogens on thousands of human research subjects under the delusional idea of creating a bacteriological weapons program. I could give you myriad other examples where scientists have conducted unethical research either for their love of science or under the delusion that they were helping mankind.

But, let’s return to current times. In today’s world, with the FDA and NIH closely monitoring participation of human research subjects in clinical trials, being used as a guinea pig against your will is not a concern. But, recently there has been a rise in scientific misconduct. Reporting false made up results is kind of a craze in the scientific community these days. On this list of morally unacceptable things that scientists have done, publishing falsified data might not take the first place crown, but it comes in a close second. 

The way the peer-review process works is, a researcher group sends their paper to a journal. First the editor of the journal reviews the paper to see if the research described by the paper matches the journal’s subject matter. With the editor’s recommendation, the paper is then sent out to reviewers. Reviewers are usually scientists who can conduct an unbiased review of the study based on their knowledge of the subject at hand, judging the submitted work based on the novelty of the research, validity of the science presented and several other points.

Meet Chen-Yuan Chen, a researcher from Taiwan. Recently sixty papers describing his research were retracted by a journal citing “tainted peer-review process” as the reason. Dr. Chen had created multiple fake online profiles to review his own papers. Some of the identities he created belonged to existing scientists and a few were fictional.

Next, meet Haruko Obokata. You might have heard about the controversial STAP stem cells. She was a lead author on two of the Nature publications describing her work on STAP cells. Although the hypothesis that stress conditions might be able to induce pluripotency in cells is a novel one, the paper describing the methodology was filled with errors and no researcher till date has been able to replicate the results to prove the phenomena is real.

Scientific research is a fundamentally unpredictable field. Research (be it in the field of biology, physics or chemistry) is an amalgamation of science and human intellect. Researchers rely on publications to take the work done by their peers and apply it to their own findings. In this era where more and more researchers are losing funding, the fact that a paper was published describing fabricated work is also a concerning problem. It is likely that work was funded by a grant that could have been used to fund a research project with actual potential.

Scientific research is a never-ending cycle of publishing papers and writing grants. With more and more researchers losing funding, the pressure of publishing in high profiled journals is higher than ever, which might be a cause for the rise in scientific misconduct.

In today’s era, reciting the Hippocratic oath might just be a way to keep the essence of a long-standing tradition alive, but I believe it’s more than that. It gives doctors a sense of community, a sense of support that the millions who have chosen this path before you are your companions and mentors, and the millions that will come after you will look up to you as role models. It’s not the intellectual offering but the sense of responsibility for the community that one gets from following a tradition.

Graduates of today are the future grant applicants and principal investigators of tomorrow. Introducing an oath for scientists will socially obligate researchers to put moral obligations before financial gains.

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