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Conduct concerns raise issue of ethics training
But little academic education exists
For many years, institutions involved in training the nation’s bioscience researchers have spent a great deal of time and money ensuring that their graduates function at the cutting edge of science and technology. But they’ve placed far less emphasis on ensuring that the same graduates are aware of the accompanying ethical, legal, and social implications of the work they do.
The high-profile cases of questionable research conduct occurring in recent years at some of these same institutions have led to questions about the need for formal ethics instruction for graduate students in the biosciences, say some instructors.
"We must teach our students the professional ethical rules that have been worked out by institutions and professional societies. They cannot hope to abide by rules they’ve never learned," advises Roberta M. Berry, JD, associate professor of public policy and director of the Law, Science, and Technology Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
"We must equip our students with ethical reasoning skills — just as we equip them with scientific reasoning skills — so they know how to apply the rules competently to the situations they will encounter in their professional lives. Students need to appreciate the implications of their work for others if they are to be ethically mature adults who take responsibility for their conduct and its consequences in their professional lives as they do in their personal lives."
Writing in a recent issue of the American Journal of Bioethics, Berry and colleague Arri Eisen from Atlanta-based Emory University examine the lack of formal ethics education for researchers in the biosciences and provide recommendations for future development of curricula.1
The vast majority of principal investigators in bioscience have received little or no formal training in responsible research conduct, Berry and Eisen point out.
Recent surveys of both professors and students reveal that although nearly 90% of graduate students from major research institutions reported having supportive faculty members, fewer than half said these faculty provided a lot of help with regard to the details of good research practice. A fifth of the graduate students reported they got no help at all in this area.
As for the faculty, 99% of the 2,000 faculty members surveyed believed they and others in their positions should have collective responsibility for the professional conduct of their graduate students, yet only 27% felt that they followed through with this responsibility.
There are many explanations for the discrepancy between the perceived need for ethics training and the actual lack of it in the formal education process, Berry says.
"From the public perspective, bioscience research has been overshadowed over the last couple of years. On the one hand, by the larger research projects of physics and associated technologies — for example, nuclear weapons and nuclear power — and, on the other hand, by the more immediate and compelling ethical issues presented by the practice of medicine and by human subjects research," she explains. "Public scrutiny has grown only recently and in tandem with the enormous increase in public and private funding of bioscience research; its great successes — as for example, in mapping and sequencing the human genome — has increased worries about the ethical, legal, and social implications of bioscience, in particular, worries associated with genetic information and technologies and scandals about the conduct of bioscientific research."
Ethics by osmosis
From the researchers’ perspective, there has been little prior public scrutiny of their work and many of them believed that ethical norms of their particular area or profession were being honored and passed down from veteran scientists to novice students without the need for explicit instruction, Berry notes.
"From the perspective of the bioscientist, the inside perspective, there has not been the sense of professional self-interest in developing and enforcing an explicit code of conduct to be used in instructing the next generation and in reassuring private clients as well as regulators that the profession’s ethical house was in order," she continues.
"Bioscience researchers are a diverse group of scientists without a singular professional identity, without individual clients, and, until fairly recently, without an immediate sense of public regulatory interest in their conduct. But the same pressures that have led to increased scrutiny from the outside — plus the globalization and expansion of research across diverse cultures — seem to be leading to increased interest from the inside in developing explicit instruction in research ethics."
But developing a formalized model of ethics instruction will not be simple. Few experts in both bioethics and the basic sciences agree on just what exactly should be taught, how it should be taught — and how successful instruction can be evaluated, say Berry and others.
Different fields of science may have different perspectives on the same issues. And it’s unclear whether traditional ethics faculty members or veteran scientists themselves are the appropriate instructors of ethics for bioscience graduate students.
"The crux of the matter is that not all disciplines deal with the same set of ethical issues. An animal researcher does not have to be concerned with whether the financial compensation for participation in research is coercive, for example," explains Elisa Gordon, PhD, assistant professor at the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy at Loyola University of Chicago. Gordon and colleague Kayhan Parsi, PhD, wrote a commentary on ethics education in the same journal issue.2
"But what is less obvious," says Gordon, "is that even when disciplines share ethical issues, such as informed consent for human subjects, different disciplines have different approaches or even standards for obtaining consent."
For example, she notes, the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects or Common Rule has been undergoing revision under the supervision of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) and the Department of Health and Human Services. In 2001, NBAC proposed various efforts to strengthen the protection of humans participating in research, such as the requirement to obtain written consent. Many of these efforts, however, do not necessarily apply to all kinds of research, particularly ethnographic research, she argues.
In ethnographic research, written consent can undermine the rapport between an investigator and respondent that is essential to the research enterprise.
"Written consent and even oral consent can transform a trusting relationship into a hierarchical one. In addition, obtaining consent may not even be feasible when ethnographers conduct participant observation, that is, observing human events without disturbing their temporal processes and outcome," Gordon says.
"Many scholars in the social sciences and humanities have responded to NBAC’s suggested revisions about this problem. One of their suggestions is to include more social scientists on institutional IRBs in order to better address the variety of research methods and the ethical issues they generate."
Going beyond the basics
There are basic ethical concepts common to all areas of research, and pursuing a basic curriculum may be a worthwhile goal as long as efforts don’t end there, she adds.
"A core curriculum that governs biological, chemical, and social science may be partly feasible if it addresses some of the broad issues relating to research ethics," Gordon says. "For instance, such a course may include a discussion of authoring publications, conflicts of interest, and plagiarism, among other topics. However, the course would be inherently limited by its attempt to be applicable to such a broad audience. It may be worthwhile to first identify what the general topics are, like the ones listed above, and then for individual disciplines to develop and adapt the topics for their own specific needs."
Berry agrees that it would be best for individual disciplines, with possible input from public policy scholars, sociologists, philosophers, and legal experts, to examine the ethical issues most relevant to their work. Then, in the future, representatives from the different basic science disciplines and different institutions may want to work together on a more uniform approach to ethics education.
"I think there will come a time when quality of research ethics education is associated with significant uniformity across institutions, with variation reflecting the distinctive character of different institutions as well as some pluralism with respect to the proper goals and means of ethics education," she says. "But, in the next several years, I think we’ll learn best by proceeding as experimentalists, developing diverse hypotheses, testing them, and studying and comparing the results. This may well include multi-institutional collaboration in large-scale experiments aimed at developing models, and it certainly will involve drawing on the fine programs and supporting materials that have already been developed by a number of institutions and centers."
1. Eisen A, Berry RM. The absent professor: Why we don’t teach research ethics and what to do about it. Am J Bioethics 2002; 2:38-48.
2. Gordon EJ, Parsi KP. It’s Alive! Giving birth to research ethics education. Am J Bioethics 2002; 2:65-66.
• Roberta M. Berry, JD, Georgia Institute of Technology, D.M. Smith Room 310, 685 Cherry St., Atlanta, GA 30332.
• Elisa Gordon, PhD, Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics & Health Policy, Loyola University, 2160 S. First Ave., Maywood, IL 60153.