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The Integrity of Science
Scientific integrity is a broad term used in a variety of contexts to refer to topics ranging from laboratory ethics to political interference in science. Just what exactly does ‘scientific integrity’ mean anyway? If you’ve found yourself seeking clarification, you’re not alone: in 2005 ‘integrity’ was the most researched word in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Unfortunately, a lack of integrity in the public sphere may have prompted Americans to expand their vocabularies. Here’s what they found at www.m-w.com. Integrity: firm adherence to a code, especially moral or artistic values; incorruptibility.
Perhaps as more people learn what integrity means, they will better understand its relationship to science. However, the imprecise use of the terms ethics and integrity causes confusion in both the academic world and the general public. Throughout 2006 and 2007, Student Pugwash USA (SPUSA) is focusing on the integrity of science in its conferences. SPUSA’s focus on scientific integrity is overarching, emphasizing the importance for scientists to adhere to both moral principles and professional standards. Our programs focus on ethical dilemmas in research as well as an examination of how inappropriate political influence can compromise the objectivity of scientific work.
In 2004, the influential journal, Science, published a landmark paper by a team of South Korean scientists outlining a major advance in stem cell research. They claimed that by replacing genetic material from human eggs with genetic material from adult cells, they created 11 new stem cell lines derived from the cloned embryos. The resulting stem cells would be a perfect match for the patient and could lead to the cure of a number of diseases.1
In late 2005 a review committee at the researcher’s university determined that this work, along with some of the head scientist’s previous stem cell research, was largely fraudulent. This egregious case of scientific fraud was met with a landslide of media attention as well as extreme disappointment among scientists at the cloud of suspicion cast around the already contentious field of stem cell research.2
While such instances of scientific fraud are highly publicized, experts question their frequency. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) report the highest number of confirmed cases of fraud, totaling between 20-30 cases per year, where fraud is defined by as "fabrication, falsification or plagiarism (FFP) in proposing, performing or reviewing research, or in reporting research results."3 Though few empirical studies have examined the rate of FFP, estimates of their prevalence range from 1% to 2%.4 However, according to the National Research Council, determining the frequency of scientific misconduct is difficult due to “differences in the definitions of misconduct in science, uncertainties about the basis for ‘confirmed’ cases, the time lag between the occurrence and disclosure of some cases, and potential overlap between government summaries (which are anonymous) and cases identified by name in the research literature."5
While egregious cases of fraud make headlines and corrode public trust in science, there are a number of more subtle and complex ethical issues surrounding the integrity of scientific research. They include determination of authorship; conflicts of interest, particularly relating to funding; use of human subjects; and ethical issues surrounding vivisection. Brian Martinson, an investigator with the Health Partners Research Foundation, undertook an anonymous survey of NIH-funded researchers regarding their personal research behavior over the last three years. The initial results of the study, published in Nature in 2005, found that five percent of scientists had excluded data from their final results because it contradicted previous research, 10 percent had inappropriately included coauthors on published research, and over 15 percent admitted they had “changed a study's design or results to satisfy a sponsor, or ignored observations because they had a ‘gut feeling’ they were inaccurate.”6 In an interview with the Washington Post, Martinson argued that these smaller offenses, called “questionable research practices,” can be more destructive to science than highly publicized cases of fraud because they are so common.
South Korean Panel Debunks Stem Cell Claims
The American Association for the Advancement of Science Office of Research Integrity
NAS Report on Integrity in Scientific Research: Creating an Environment That Promotes Responsible Conduct
Conflicts of Interest
One of the most pressing and complicated issues facing scientific researchers is conflict of interest. According to the Office of Research Integrity at HHS financial conflicts of interest are “situations that create perceived or actual tensions between personal financial gain and adherence to the fundamental values of honesty, accuracy, efficiency, and objectivity.”7 Financial conflict of interest addresses not only income, stock options, and ownership of a company, but also includes research funding; payment for lectures or travel; consultancies; and the financial interests of a spouse or relative. An increase in corporate funding for university research, due in part to the Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed industries for the first time to patent the results of federally funded research, has resulted in financial conflicts of interest becoming more common as universities and their faculty garner industry funding for their research. The pharmaceutical industry has especially profited from the ability for faculty and universities to patent research and pharmaceutical R&D has greatly increased, going from $1.3 billion in 1977 to $32 billion in 2002.8
Experts fear that corporate research funding has the potential to corrode scientific integrity, influencing the structure of scientific experiments and their results, as well as the prescribing patterns of doctors. There is also concern that experts who sit on advisory panel committees, such as FDA drug review boards, could be inappropriately swayed by financial ties to the private sector. Recent studies have found that researchers who have a financial interest in the drug or treatment they are studying range between 2.5 and 4 times more likely to find the drug or treatment effective than researchers who have other sources of funding.9
Critics of industry funding argue that disclosure of conflicts of interest is not enough, insisting that stricter conflict of interest policies should be in place to limit the interactions of universities and pharmaceutical companies. The authors of a 2006 study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and conducted by consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, examined the relationship between FDA advisory committee member’s financial ties to the public sector and the way they voted and found a “weak relationship.”10 However, the lead author of the study argues that the FDA should remove committee members with financial conflicts of interest whenever possible. The authors recommended that all gifts from drug companies, including travel and pharmaceutical samples, should be banned, no one with financial ties to industry should sit on hospital and formulary committees, and that faculty should abstain from speaking at speaker’s bureaus or allowing a process called ghost writing.11
Others believe this heavy-handed approach is unnecessary and potentially harmful. They argue that researchers are trained to maintain objectivity and are not easily “bought,” particularly when their reputations are at stake. Supporters point to the positive aspects of collaborations between academic researchers and companies. The private sector’s role in technology transfer, the process in which academic knowledge is transformed into new drugs and devices that are made available in the marketplace, is particularly important to introduce new products into the marketplace more quickly since academic researchers aren’t in the business of developing their research into products for consumers. Furthermore, cash-strapped institutions need funding that will help them carry out their lofty research and educational goals. In general, those who are wary of restrictive conflict of interest policies emphasize the important role the private sector has played in medical and scientific research.
Office of Research Integrity, Introduction to Responsible Conduct in Research
Responsible Conduct in Research: Conflicts of Interest from Columbia University
Integrity of Science and Codes of Conduct
A growing number of experts feel that scientists could more easily manage ethical dilemmas if their professions had a code of conduct. A code of conduct for scientists would outline standards of professionally acceptable behavior. Codes of conduct are by no means a new concept; engineering, law, and medical codes became common in the 19 th century.12 In a more recent example, the code of conduct for engineers adopted by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology emphasizes that engineers should, above all, uphold the “safety, health, and welfare of the public in their professional duties.” The code also describes an engineer’s responsibility to perform only tasks that fall under their area of expertise, to speak truthfully to the public, and to act in a professional manner and avoid conflicts of interest.13 Codes of conduct are often formulated and adopted by scientific societies and other bodies representing a large contingency of scientists from a specific discipline. Most major scientific societies have a code of conduct. The Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at Illinois Institute of Technology maintains an online database of codes of conduct from a variety of professions. To date, there are 66 codes of conduct from science and engineering organizations in this database.
Supporters assert that codes allow individual scientists and engineers to reinforce their moral decisions with their authority as a professional. Dr. Stephen Unger, former chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Ethics Committee, believes that a code of conduct collectively addresses the responsibilities of a profession, serving as a guide for scientists facing ethical dilemmas, as well as creating an environment where ethical behavior is the norm. Additionally, codes of conduct serve as educational tools, teaching students what behavior is morally acceptable.14
However, controversy regarding codes of conduct remains in the scientific community. Some scientists believe that they are unnecessary and serve no purpose. John Ladd, professor emeritus at Brown University, argues that a code of conduct is unnecessary because the ethics of professionals are no different than the ethics that apply to normal human beings within society. Heinz Luegenbiehl, professor at the Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, acknowledges that there are some benefits to a code of conduct, but believes that they create more moral problems than they solve and that professionals rarely, if ever, consult their codes of conduct.15
Student Pugwash USA initiated a pledge program in response to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs and Sir Joseph Rotblat in 1995.
Students and others who are interested in taking the socially responsible science pledge may do so online.
Take the SPUSA Pledge Today!
Codes of Ethics from the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at IIT
Brian Rappert’s Paper on Codes of Conduct (pdf)
Student Pugwash USA Mindfull on Pledges, Oaths, and Scientists (pdf)
National Society of Engineers, Ethics and Creeds
Scientific Integrity in Public Policymaking
Science can be an effective tool for policy makers to use when making decisions. Though science is not the only factor to be considered when making policy (economics, ethics, and social issues are also essential), the best available science can play an important role in the decision-making process concerning a variety of issues such as global warming and other environmental issues; a broad range of public health issues; and issues of national security. ‘Scientific integrity’ has become a catchphrase used by a variety of nongovernmental organizations that are working to prevent politics from inappropriately influencing scientific work and to ensure that politicians have access to the best available science. These groups and a growing number of scientists across a broad range of disciplines assert that there have been an unprecedented number of instances in which the objective integrity of scientific work has been compromised by political or ideological motives.
A number of scientists have come forward to protest political manipulation and censorship of their work. In January 2006, James Hansen, a senior climate scientist at NASA, publicly stated that the Bush administration was attempting to silence his scientific research linking greenhouse gas emissions to climate change by restricting his ability to speak publicly on the issue.16 Hansen does not seem to be alone. In March 2005, Rick Piltz, a whistleblower from a government climate office resigned because he was not being allowed to speak freely. In the summer of 2005, Piltz provided the New York Times with several scientific climate change reports with handwritten edits made by Philip Cooney, chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and a lawyer without any scientific training. The edits served to overstate the level of uncertainty related to climate change.17 These cases are not restricted to the highly contentious issue of climate science. Several more examples include a federal biologist who resigned over an alleged violation of the Endangered Species Act by NOAA Fisheries and a whistleblower from the National Institutes of Health who asserts that NIH did not comply with mandatory health and safety requirements in an AIDS research program.
Nonprofit organizations, professional scientific societies, including the National Academies of Science, and members of Congress are working toward legislative reforms intended to prevent politics from inappropriately influencing science.
Senator Durbin’s Amendment to Health and Human Services (HHS) Appropriations Legislation
At the end of 2005, Congress approved an amendment to the HHS Appropriations bill to prevent the use of political litmus tests for federal advisory committee members. There is evidence that some scientists nominated to federal advisory committees are being chosen based on a litmus test regarding their political views, voting record, or campaign donations—not their expertise or impressive credentials. The amendment will also prevent the deliberate dissemination of false or misleading information. This bill was signed into law in December 2005.
Restore Scientific Integrity in Federal Policy Making Act (H.R. 839) and (S. 1358)
These bills, introduced by Representatives Waxman (D-CA) and Gordon (D-TN) and Senator Durbin (D-IL) would do the following.
- Help prevent the manipulation of data
- Protect government scientists and strengthen whistleblower protections
- Strengthen the independence of federal science advisory committees by banning political litmus tests
- Improve transparency of the science advisory process
- Promote sensible review of government science
- Establish an annual report to Congress by the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy addressing the state of federal scientific integrity.
Source: The Union of Concerned Scientists
Learn more about H.R. 839
Learn more about S. 1358
Responding to Allegations of the Misuse of Science
In April 2004 John Marburger, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, responded to allegations made by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group, that the Bush administration had been misusing science. He asserts that President Bush believes policy should be made with the best information possible, and “expects his Administration to conduct its business with integrity.” Marburger also points out that the administration has demonstrated a strong commitment to science by requesting the highest level of R&D funding in 27 years in the 2005 budget.18 He further asserts that the accusations are “wrong and misleading.”
Additionally, other experts argue that scientists should do more to distance themselves from politics. The scientific community highly values objectivity and many in the scientific community are uncomfortable with scientists skirting the political realm in which value judgments are extremely important. Daniel Sarewitz, director of the Center for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, argues that scientific inquiry is, in fact, “inherently unsuitable for helping to resolve political debates.”
Maintaining the integrity of science will always be an extremely important goal as new ethical and political challenges arise in the dynamic field of science. However, an increasing number of scientific journals, governmental agencies, and scientific societies are working to raise awareness of the importance of socially responsible science and put into place standards of ethical behavior that will aid the scientific community in facing future challenges. Student Pugwash’s 2006-07 focus on the integrity of science helps prepare future science leaders to maintain a high level of socially responsibility and awareness in their professional endeavors. Learn more about SPUSA events!
Submitted by: Sharlissa Moore, fall 2006
Special thanks to Nicholas Steneck from the University of Michigan for reviewing this brief.
1. “Stem Cells Tailored to Patients;” BBC News, May 20, 2005.
2. “South Korean Panel Debunks Scientist’s Stem Cell Claims,” Washington Post, January 10, 2006.
3. N. Steneck. “Fostering Integrity in Research: Definitions, Current Knowledge, and Future Directions,” Science and Engineering Ethics, 2006, Volume 12, Issue 1.
4.N. Steneck. “Fostering Integrity in Research: Definitions, Current Knowledge, and Future Directions,” Science and Engineering Ethics, 2006, Volume 12, Issue 1.
5. “Integrity in Scientific Research: Creating an Environment That Promotes Responsible Conduct,” The National Academies Press, 2002.
6 . Weiss, “Many Scientists Admit to Misconduct,” June 9, 2005.
7. N. Steneck. “ORI Introduction to Responsible Conduct in Research,” Office of Research Integrity at the Department of Health and Human Services.
8. “Conflicts of Interest: Responsible Conduct of Research,” Columbia University, No date available.
9. N. Steneck. “Fostering Integrity in Research: Definitions, Current Knowledge, and Future Directions,” Science and Engineering Ethics, 2006, Volume 12, Issue 1.
10. “FDA Advisory Committee Member Financial Ties to Pharmaceutical Companies Do Not Affect Results of Votes, Study Finds,” Medical News Today, July 12, 2006.
11. “Oncology Times: Volume XXVIII No. 7,” April 10, 2006.
12. B. Rappert, “Strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention: Working Toward a Life Sciences Code,” University of Bradford, September, 2004.
13. “Suggested Guidelines for use with the fundamental canons of ethics,” Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at IIT.
14. “Introduction to Codes of Ethics,” Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at IIT.
15. “Introduction to Codes of Ethics,” Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at IIT.
16. A. Revkin, “Climate Expert Says NASA Tried to Silence Him,” New York Times, January 29, 2006.
17. “Climate Change Research Distorted and Suppressed,” Union of Concerned Scientists, June, 2005.
18. “Statement of the Honorable John H. Marburger, III On Scientific Integrity in the Bush Administration,” April 2, 2004,
NSF Conflict of Interest Definition:
Researchers must disclose:
- Income or equity> $10,000 per year
- Income > 5% of the company
- Holding position of director, officer, or employee
Click on the links to read the NIH, the NSF, and the FDA policies. Most universities also have COI policies.
I promise to work for a better world, where science and technology are used in socially responsible ways. I will not use my education for any purpose intended to harm human beings or the environment. Throughout my career, I will consider the ethical implications of my work before I take action. While the demands placed upon me may be great, I sign this declaration because I recognize that individual responsibility is the first step on the path to peace.
|Jargon: Don't litmus tests belong in chemistry lab?
A political litmus test is a question asked of a candidate for an office or advisory board position on a single, and often contentious, issue. Litmus tests are often associated with the appointment of judges to higher courts.