Is Science Becoming More Immoral?

November 20, 2016
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With the burgeoning in the scientific industry and a spike in number of scientists vying for limited sponsors, governmental grants and public approval, it is no wonder than more are motivated to breach previously high-regarded moral and ethical standards. The prevalence of Japanese researchers who claim that they can cure HIV – a fraudulent claim, and Russian scientists who produce fake reports on stem-cell research breakthroughs, should highlight a disconcerting phenomenon in science. (Another infamous example would be that of Hwang Woo Suk, a Korean scientist with so-called expertise in cloning humans.) Science is becoming like a business, run by profit-motives and immoral people. Something needs to be done about it.

The idea of “whistleblowing” soon came about; “whistleblowing” isn’t the literal act of blowing those small little toys, it is to call for attention and put one in the limelight, to highlight someone’s scandalous scientific practices. This has largely curbed numerous immoral practices, with history littered with examples of people who first had their suspicion aroused with overly-reliable data, then went on to fact-check those data figures by repeating the experiment once more. Upon realising that those figures were largely misconstrued, the data-checker will then go on to lodge a report, serving sweet justice. There’s just two problems though: the first is that retaliation from the scientist-in-question in the form of lawsuits and death threats can easily deter anyone from attempting to even conduct preliminary fact-checks to ascertain truth; the second is that, as famously quoted, “There is no Nobel Prize for fact-checking. There is only a Nobel Prize for scientific breakthroughs.” Indeed, where is the incentive for going the extra mile to fact-check other’s works?

The former concern has already been addressed protections under the law in place to prevent that whistleblower from being on the receiving end of any punishment for stepping forward. After all, if one is constantly punished and labelled as “disgruntled, troublemaking” for checking someone else’s work then reporting it, who will want to do it anymore? In the 1980’s, Dr. Wilmshurst was invited by a very large pharmaceutical company in the UK to participate in their clinical research trial evaluating the efficacy of a new oral drug intended to strengthen cardiac contractions in patients with heart failure.  His research data showed no effects upon contractility in patients, and revealed very dangerous side effects.  According to the company, research data from their own researchers were strongly and uniformly positive.

When he reported his research results to the manufacturer, he was asked to suppress his negative findings.  Wilmshurst refused to do that, and would not keep quiet about his research results despite threats. Later, it was revealed that several other independent researchers had found adverse results similar to those of Dr. Wilmshurst, but fear had prevented them from announcing their findings.  More reports from clinical physicians showed numerous medical problems arising in treated patients; finally, marketing this new drug in the UK and the US was stopped by the manufacturer, but sales and usage continued in some developing countries.  Only after a large write-up about Dr. Wilmshurst and his dispute in the Guardian newspaper (UK) was this dangerous pharmaceutical completely withdrawn from the entire world. Hence, whistleblowing serves to promote honesty in business, government, and science. Thankfully, laws currently are now making it illegal to pressure and intimidate whistleblowers in order to protect the welfare of society.

Is there then an incentive to whistleblow, if one is not given the required recognition for doing so? It turns out there is. Scientist Helene Hill who took a peek at her lab mate’s culture dishes before realising that her data results were fabricated, tried unsuccessfully numerous times to lodge a report. Remaining undeterred, she continued pursuing the case for 10 more years and at a huge financial expense, mainly as she felt that she had an obligation to do so and she was obsessed with it. The sheer need to see justice meted out, to protect the sanctity of science, is enough to fuel the just scientist in going all the way out to shut down any unethical procedures and fake results. It is difficult to silence whistleblowers; they will endure all forms of retaliation for the sake of truth, so long as they remain under control by their conscience.

Yes, research ethics and high moral protocols are constantly held to by scientists, but it does appear that despite the risks in becoming exposed to public scrutiny and unfavourable lawsuits, many are still choosing to fabricate their results. Perhaps the root cause has to be addressed: the issue of fame. More often than not, a juicy headline: “Drug A cures cancer!” attracts more praise then scepticism. It is time to take on a more practical, rational approach and question the process behind breakthroughs, instead of being emotionally manipulated by such discoveries. Only then will it lessen the incentive for incompetent scientists to do science in the wrong way. Similar to sports, where people overly focus on the outcome rather than the process, few question whether the ultimate victory was a result of bribery, ill sportsmanship or match-fixing. They express delight over the catchy “Football team wins gold!” headline, rather than disbelief especially if the sports team had never made it past the quarter-finals at all.

Hence, we need to make sure that whistleblowing remains an integral part of science, as it is what makes science real. Otherwise, the fall of science will be precisely caused by unprecedented advancements in science. “Advancements”, indeed.

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