Dark Matters: An archive of research ethics mistakes

December 20, 2013
darkmatter

Stories discussed in Dark Matters could prove useful when teaching about research ethics

I discovered recently that the Discovery Science channel has an interesting little series called Dark Matters: Twisted but true. Started in 2011, to date there have been two series of the show. Typically each 45 minute episode looks at three separate examples of “strange science”. The standard format for each tale includes historical reenactment and soundbite interviews with experts from the field.

In truth the choice of incidents discussed is patchy; some aligning poorly with the definition of “science”, or “strange”, or both. The subtitle “Twisted but true” gives insight into the audience for whom the series may be targeted.  We also need to be slightly cautious about putting too much reliance on the validity of docudrama versions of events.

Having said that, however, there are plenty of examples here which could be used as introductions to some of the more notorious breaches of research ethics. For example, Season 2 Episode 2 (TRILT 02F8C452) discusses Louis Pasteur’s testing of an experimental rabies vaccine on Joseph Meister. Episode 2.6 (TRILT 02FB2D0F) includes recreation of the notorious Stanford prison experiment, and 2.7 (TRILT 02FD7B36) discusses the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in which poor sharecroppers with syphilis were deliberately kept untreated, even after the efficacy of penicillin for treating the illness had been demonstrated.


Headline Bioethics: The balance of safety in publication of H5N1 research

September 3, 2013

[A printable version of this Headline Bioethics Commentary is available via this link]
H5N1

Author: Nick McDonald

Clip: Experts delay call on releasing controversial H5N1 work

Date of story: 17th February 2012

 

Summary of story: In the period 2003–2011, 566 cases of people infected by bird flu worldwide were reported to WHO (2011), with 59% of the cases being fatal. The virus has been known to infect people since 1997 (Grady and Broad, 2011), but only through infected birds, and not via person-to-person transmission(Yong, 2012b). Herfst et al (2012) and Imai et al (2012) mutated H5N1 to see if it could acquire the mutations necessary for airborne transmission between ferrets (considered a good model for humans) in the wild. This research was due to be published in the journals Nature and Science, but the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) asked the journals to delay publication, and recommended that key methods should be omitted (Grady and Broad, 2011) due to fears of the virus being released “by error or by terror” (Keim, 2012) and the “potential risk of public harm to be of unusually high magnitude” (Berns, 2012). Eventually in March of 2012 the NSABB agreed that the two papers should be published in full (Yong, 2012a). The video from February 2012 reports on the decision to delay publication.

Discussion of ethical issues: The decision about whether or not to publish details of the process by which H5N1 could be render easier to transmit is a good example of a dual-use dilemma, defined by Atlas and Dando (2006: p276) as “the generation and dissemination of scientific knowledge that could be misapplied for biological weapons development and production”. Kuhlau et al (2011) argue that if a dual-use technology poses a legitimate threat, the science community is obliged to develop, implement and adhere to precautious measures to meet the concern. Read the rest of this entry »


Pharmaceuticals: tricks of the trade

December 28, 2012

I’m sure many readers of BioethicsBytes are already familiar with the TED Talks phenomenon but, as far as I’m aware this is the first time we’ve directly recommended one of their videos on this site. TED events, and later online videos, involve invited participants in giving “the talk of their lives” in 18 minutes or less. The result is a collection of pithy and thought-provoking presentations on a variety of topics.

Ben Goldacre's 2012 book Bad Pharma shines a spotlight on poor, and dangerous, practice in the pharmaceutical industry

Ben Goldacre shines a spotlight on poor and dangerous practice in the pharmaceutical industry

Ben Goldacre is a medically-qualified writer who has devoted much of his time drawing the public’s attention to examples of pseudoscience and inappropriate uses of science, originally via his regular Bad Science column in the Guardian newspaper and later in his first book, of the same name (see here for a review of the book Bad Science).

In 2012, Goldacre has turned his penetrating gaze on the pharmaceutical industry and the results, now available in his second book Bad Pharma, have brought to a wider audience concerns about the ‘tricks’ that are played by drug companies to make their products seem more successful than is warranted. Read the rest of this entry »


Rise of the Planet of the Apes – a bioethical feast

December 31, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, now available on DVD, was one of the blockbuster releases in the summer of 2011. A prequel to the classic series of films (5 cinema releases between 1968 and 1973, TV spin-off and Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of the main Planet of the Apes), the new movie tries to offer a plausible mechanisms for the evolution of apes into a dominant global force.

(Warning: contains spoilers!) The new film is a veritable gold-mine for discussion of ethical topics, it would make as excellent vehicle for an engaging “film night”. In terms of bioethical issues, the film touches on all of the following:

  • Research ethics – there are lots of examples where aspects of the conduct of research are raised (some of which are picked out specifically in the list below). The motivations for doing research are touched upon at several points in the film – these include financial gain, fame and a desire to do good, both for mankind in general and specifically for the benefit of a relative in need. GenSys boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) is the embodiment of profit as a driver for research whereas Will Rodman (James Franco) represents more noble aspirations. A discussion of the ethics of research funding could follow naturally. Read the rest of this entry »

Ethics in the biosciences (Resource)

September 8, 2011
cover of briefing document

The Briefing contains recommendations about useful resources for teaching about various aspects of bioethics

Anyone involved in teaching ethics to bioscience students should get hold of a copy of Ethics in the biosciences: Resources, references and tools for ethics teaching in the biosciences. This is the second Briefing document produced by the UK Centre for Bioscience (the first was on Assessment).

The new booklet includes coverage of the following topics:

    • Teaching ethics
    • Assessing ethics
    • Ethical theory: How are ethical decisions made?
    • The ethics of being a scientist
    • Environmental ethics
    • Issues at the beginning of life
    • Issues at the end of life
    • Genetics and genomes
    • Animal experimentation
    • Transhumanism
    • Ethics and Risk

Each chapter includes a short introduction written by an expert on the topic and then a recommendations of other resources (websites, books, articles, slides, videos, etc) which have proven to be useful in teaching on the subject.

In addition to the online version of the booklet, a number of hard copies have been produced – if you would like one please contact the UK Centre for Bioscience before December 2011 when, unfortunately, their activities will be substantially scaled back.


Some (in)famous cases of research misconduct

May 19, 2011

I gave a presentation at a recent meeting of the UK Centre for Bioscience day conference on Some (in)famous cases of research conduct. I’ve uploaded both the slides (below, and on Slideshare) as well as a table summarising who, what, when and my classification of what category or categories of research misconduct they represent. Some of the discussion at the session was of the “why haven’t you included Dr So-and-so?” variety. One of two of these were new to me, but mostly I had made a conscious decision to exclude the person named, either because they have since been exonerated or because the jury is still out. I’d welcome suggestions for other examples to include in a revised version.

Other presentations from the Teaching Research Ethics to Bioscience Students day conference are available via this link.


Science Betrayed: Reflections on research misconduct

April 4, 2011

Dr Adam Rutherford looks into misconduct in scientific research

A pair of 30 minute documentaries Science Betrayed have recently aired on Radio 4 (UK). In these programmes, Dr Adam Rutherford, Nature journalist and science interpreter for the broader public, investigates the murky world of scientific misconduct.

In the first episode, Rutherford looks at some historical and recent examples of misconduct ranging from the Piltdown Man hoax through to the case of South Korean stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-Suk. He and his interviewees reflect on some of the pressures that lead researchers to fabricate data.

The second episode focuses more specifically on the case of Andrew Wakefield and the alleged link between MMR and autism. The programme includes an interview with Wakefield himself as well as investigative journalist Brian Deer who was pivotal in uncovering evidence of malpractice.

The episodes can both be accessed via the BBC website. At the time of writing the BBC iPlayer gives no mention of expiry date so I am hopeful these are resources that will be directly available for some while. It appears that there is also an abbreviated version (18 mins) of episode 1 (and presumably episode 2, once broadcast) on the Discovery site where it is actually downloadable as an mp3 podcast – thanks to Joe (comments, below) for this tip-off.


Whose cells are they anyway?

December 24, 2010

Rebecca Skloot's book has received critical and popular acclaim in 2010

In hundreds of research labs around the world, including within my own Department, scientists carry out experiments using a human cell line known as “HeLa”. Most cells die after a defined period of time, but mutations within the HeLa cells have allowed them to continue dividing outside of these normal contraints, and as such they are said to be “immortal”. The original tissue sample from which HeLa cells are derived was taken from the cancerous cervix of an African-American woman Henrietta Lacks (the name of the cell line being an abbreviation of her name).

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a captivating account of the human story behind these amazing cells, has recently won many plaudits, including the prestigious Wellcome Trust Book Prize.

Read the rest of this entry »


The Dark Side of Peer Review

February 2, 2010

“Peer review” is the process in which manuscripts describing research findings are critiqued by other scientists in the relevant field to see whether the work is of sufficiently high quality to be published.  There can be little doubt that peer review can be a useful method for intercepting inferior quality data and for offering advice on the key experiment or experiments that the research team need to perform in order to substantiate their story.

For a long time, however, there have been concerns within the scientific community that the process is open to abuse by unscrupulous scientists exploiting their role as reviewers to further their own research. In recent weeks these concerns have spilled into the general press and generated alarming headlines.

First, there was the “Climategate” scandal in which leaked e-mail exchanges within the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia brought into doubt the veracity of some of the evidence for global warming. The details of the science itself are not relevant to the discussion here, and many of the original accusations against the CRU look considerably less damning in the wider context in which they were written (see, for example, the interesting video Climate change: those hacked e-mails). Nevertheless, one feature of the memos was the insinuation that peer review could be manipulated.

Added to this, we now have the spectacle of leading stem cell scientists complaining that their work has been ‘slow-tracked’ by major journals in favour of other research being carried out by rival teams (for details see the BBC report Journal stem cell work ‘blocked’ or listen to the audio Stem cell research ‘biased’ (Today programme, 2nd February 2010).

In truth, there are lots of different issues at play in this story. One is the rivalry between research teams for prestige. Coupled with this there is the rivalry for research money. As the clip from the Today programme makes clear, research funding is related to a scientists track record in publishing in major research journals, those with a high “Impact Factor” (this also has a huge bearing on research ‘league tables’ as the same criteria have been key aspects of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) by which the relative merit of similar departments at different Universities are compared. Publication in a major journal such as Nature or Cell can be make or break for successful receipt of the next grant, a decision which Austin Smith says may be worth half a million pounds.

Journal publication is a business venture, so editors have a vested interest – it is alleged – in trying to make sure the work published there has topicality that will boost their Impact Factor and hence their esteem, their advertising revenue, etc. Some of these pressures might be alleviated by changes in the publication model (i.e. by a shift to more open access journals) but the fundamental difficulties of personal rivalry remain a flaw in the peer review process, even if the financial implications are negated.

In the absence of other methods for evaluating the quality of research, the peer review system is unlikely to be replaced in the near future. There is, however, an onus on editorial boards, and on the reviewers themselves, to see that the greatest possible integrity is maintained in ensuring that decisions about the merits of a paper for publication are made on the right grounds. The importance of virtue ethics comes into play here, with the character of the individual being a significant determinant in their actions.

UPDATE: This link goes to the contents of the Open Letter to Senior Editors.  There was also a second interview from the Today programme, with Sir Mark Walport of the Wellcome Trust. As suggested above, he emphasises the need for quality control and the potential to put the peer review documents on-line too so that the process is more open. He suggests that the reviewers need to remain anonymous so that they do not need to pull their punches.


Cognitive enhancement: less sleep = more done?

February 25, 2009

In Make me… stay awake, the final part of an engaging series of three documentaries (following Make me… smart and Make me… live forever), Michael Mosley investigates the effects of sleep deprivation and ways in which these symptoms may be alleviated. As he puts it in the introduction to the film, he wants to know if there are ways of “conquering… my need and my urge for sleep” (01:40).

Several sections of the programme brought bioethical themes into sharp focus – including the use of model organisms in research (17:53-20:47) and the use of drugs to stay awake longer (26:42- end).

Read the rest of this entry »


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