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Wednesday
Aug122015

Responsible Conduct of Research – Why?

Hela cellsA large percentage of the research done at prestigious institutions like Harvard, MGH or MIT is funded by federal money through the NIH, NSF or similar agencies. We all work hard to get the best possible results and give back to society – be it through publication of our results or licencing of newly developed tools that can improve people’s lives in various ways. We work under a number of regulations with that money. In order to conduct research on an NIH grant for example, the fundees are asked to participate in “Responsible Conduct of Research” seminars, which will not always elicit an excited response from busy scientists who have enough on their plate without another obligatory seminar series. I once was one of the students who had to sign up for such lectures, and starting out I was not exactly excited.

That was, until I started going and learned about reasons those very seminars existed. Academic misconduct being one major issue even today, for example a surprisingly large number of scientists fabricating or falsifying data to publish in a very competitive environment. The fact that this is not only disruptive with respect to the readers who base their research on incorrect data found in the literature,  it occurred to me clearer than ever before that such behavior is actively wasting, stealing tax money for the sake of personal benefit. This is an example for relatively obvious ethic choices one has to make as a researcher, when other issues that arose during the seminars were not as straight forward to think about. One major human cell line used in numerous labs today is known as “HeLa”. What fewer people are aware of is the origin of this cell line: it was created from cancerous tissue taken from a black woman called Henrietta Lacks. For many years, not even her name was commonly known, she would be referred to as “Helen Lane”. She died without ever knowing what her cells had done for science. Neither did her family for many years. The cells were licenced, produced and sold making scientists rich, while Henrietta’s family lived in poor conditions in Baltimore county. At the time, no protective measures ensured that patients could not be exploited – like Henrietta. Her story was published in a great book, which I highly recommend to anyone working in the medical sciences1.

Many regulations that seem bothersome or exaggerated to new researchers have been developed over many years to protect the public from exploitation through unethical research. Knowing the historic background of these regulations, they suddenly really make sense and certain decisions become much easier to make.  I am now grateful that I was exposed to this very different perspective on scientific research. We aren’t graded in college for our ethical behavior, now will it necessarily earn us a PhD, but it is an absolutely essential prerequisite for science to function as a whole. We are consuming public money to do our work, we have to understand that it comes with a responsibility: To earn the trust of the public that enables our research, and treat them with respect.

-MGS-

1Skloot, Rebecca (2010), The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, New York City: Random House, ISBN 978-1-4000-5217-2

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