Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Science - Code of Conduct?: Supplement

ehedman's picture


The Need for a Science Code of Conduct?

Supplementary Materials

These evolving materials are provided to encourage continuing and new thought about science and its role in culture and, in particular, about the possible need of both scientists and others to clarify the ethical responsibilities inherent in scientific research. See If you have any comments or find an article that you would like me to post, add it to the forum area below! 


Had I stood firm the scientists could have developed something like the doctor's Hippocratic Oath, a vow to use their knowledge exclusively for mankind's benefit. As things are, the best that can be hoped for is a race of inventive dwarfs who can be hired for any purpose

.... Bertold Brecht, Galileo, Scene 14


What's in the News?

Grant System Leads Cancer Researchers to Play It Safe - NYTimes, 27 June 2009

With only so much money available to fund the thousands of researchers who ask for money each year, the scientific community must decide where its priorities lie. This article explores problems with the grant system today, explaining how it has become biased towards "safe" research.

Q: Is it better to invest in research based on small projects that are more likely to get results? Or should the money go into projects which are riskier, but have more potential to break new ground?

Medical Papers by Ghostwriters Pushed Therapy- NYTimes, 4 August 2009

This article explores the influence drug companies can have on doctors, frequently without anyone being the wiser. “Ghostwriters” are professional writers who are paid, in this case by the drug companies, to write articles which are credited to another author, in this case more reputable doctors who readers will trust. The medical writers maintain that their articles are scientifically sound, but is it okay to publish something doctors will use to make decisions about their treatment and then not disclose that information supposedly supporting the drug in question was commissioned by a drug company?

Q: Is it the Journal's responsability to make conflicts of interest of the Author known? To verify the author? Is there a better way? 


Survey Shows Gap Between Scientists and the Public- NYTimes 9 July 2009

Science has always had trouble communicating with the general public. This article summarizes a survey in which 2500 scientists and 2000 members of the public were asked questions about things such as global warming and evolution, and it shows a large gap between what scientists consider to be well established and what the public understands.

Q: How should scientists go about connecting to and educating the non-scientific community on a more meaningful level?

Are Germ-Killing Soaps Affecting Dolphin Development?- Scientific American 11 August 2009

Testing wild predators for chemicals is an indicator of how much of the chemical is building up in the environment. New studies on dolphins, a top level marine predator, indicate that triclosan is building up at an alarming rate. This chemical, found in anti-bacterial soaps and detergents world-wide, is building up to a level which may soon start to interfere with hormonal signals in the ocean's wildlife. The EPA has re-evaluated it and has declared it fit for continued use, but has put new regulations on companies making triclosan-containing products.

Q: How do we reconcile mankind's use of unnatural products in our day to day lives with the fact that it could be interfering with natural processes? How should we address the issue of keeping chemicals out of the oceans? Triclosan is only one of many chemicals found at high levels in dolphins and other high level predators. Is this problem unavoidable, or is there a way to clean up our act?


The Gene Hunt: Should Finders be Keepers?- Scientific American 11 August 2009

Since the 1990s, Myriad Genetics has owned the rights to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, associated with breast and ovarian cancers. Over 150,000 researchers and scientists have gotten together to sue Myriad Genetics and the and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), claiming that not allowing anyone to work with the gene is putting the lives of affected women at risk. Currently about 1/5 of our genes are owned by private parties. Myriad argues that the patents are necessary, because they wouldn't be able to fund their research or get investors if they never thought they were going to get any return on their investments, and then advancement would come to a halt.

Q: Where do we draw the line between "product of man and product of nature"? Do companies have the right to own parts of our genetic code? And if not, how do the companies pacify their investors?


Smuggling Europe's Waste to Poorer Countries - NYTimes 26 September 2009

In many parts of Europe and even parts of the United States, law have been passed to mandate recycling, especially of electronics. However, in these same places, turning your recycling into the legal channels of disposal is about 4 times more expensive than packing it onto a boat and shipping it illegally overseas (china, africa, indonesia, etc...).

Q: Can the companies expected to recylce their electronics be expected to shoulder such high prices for a mandatory government practice? Is there a better way to enforce the mandatory recycling?


Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior - NYTimes 20 March 2007

Studies of apes have shown that primate societies are capable of some of the building blocks of human morality. For example, "Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days". 

Q: Is morality strictly a social construct of humans? Or is there a biological explanation of "right and wrong"?

 Editing Scientists: Science and Policy in the White House - Scientific American 22 October 2009

A brief history of recent activity in the Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ), pointing out that sometimes the science being provided for policy makers will be altered in order to get a desired outcome. 

Q: If a politician's advisors are telling them that something is okay, can they be held accountable for not being fully informed? If our policy makers aren't informed, what is there the general public do?

'Oklahoma, What Have You Done?'- CNN 29 April 2010

A commentary on Oklahoma's new abortion legislation (HB 2656) which has decided that "a doctor is protected from being sued if he or she chooses not to tell a woman that the baby she is carrying has a birth defect". Why? Because the doctor has a fear this knowledge will lead her to have an abortion. 

Q: Does a doctor's obligation to "do no harm" extend to an unborn child? Do the words "Above all, i must not play at God" go against this new law? I it constitutional?

Payment Offers to Egg Donors Prompt Scrutiny- NYTimes 10 May 2010

Egg donation is intended to help infertile couples conceive, and ads run in newspapers of top notch colleges (able to reach many intelligent women of the right age and genetic desirability couples seek) frequently. However, in some the payments promised far exceed the maximum of $10,000 cited in voluntary guidelines posted by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. “The concern is that some young women may choose to donate against their own best interests,” Dr. Levine said. “They’ll look at the money on offer and will overlook some of the risks" which are both physical and psychological.

Q: Should it be mandatory, like CA, to include health warnings in the ads for egg donation? Is it sexist to worry about women's psychological fears and not those of male sperm donors? Should there be LEGAL limitations on the practice like there are in other developed countries?

Report Paints Grim Picture of Drug Trial Safety- 28 September 2007

Commentary on a report criticizing the FDA for not having sufficient data on its test subjects. "The FDA has no way to keep track of the number of clinical trials being done every year, who does them, who pays for them or even how many people are involved as subjects. This is beyond belief since the government agencies responsible for monitoring research with animals collect exactly that data every year. How can it be that we know how many pigs, frogs, rats and monkeys are used in research and who uses them without knowing what is going on with respect to human beings?"

Q: How can the FDA do its job when it is being so grossly underfunded? Where can the money come from? How do we monitor a government agency when they're the ones who are supposed to be making the rules?

Walgreens Postpones Plans to Sell Personal Genetic Tests- CNN 13 May 2010

A new home genetics test has been postponed from hitting the markets after the FDA has intervened. "Pathway Genomics' tests purport to examine saliva samples to assess a person's risk of getting more than 70 diseases including heart disease, hypertension and lung cancer. The company also offers carrier testing for pre-pregnancy planning, which would test for mutations that cause genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs disease." The FDA disapproves because the promises made are mostly unlikely, because all we can do is test for markers of diseases and even those markers are not always completely understood. Test can cause panic and superfluous expensive tests, OR give patients over-security and cause them to neglect their vigilance on their own health. 

Q: Does this speak to the risks of genetic testing in general? What ARE the values of getting this full genetic test? Should this technology be accessible in this type of market, giving all kinds of information without having a medical professional who an adequately explain the results to you and give you options? Or is it empowering to have this technology more marketed and more accessible to the everyday man?

Scientist: 'We Didn't Create Life from Scratch"- CNN 21 May 2010

Scientists have now created a cell that can self replicate and survive from completely synthetic, that is to say computer assembled, DNA. They copied a code from an existing bacteria and then re-created it synthetically, inserted it into another bacterium, and then started synthesis. Intended for multiple uses, "for example, new organisms that more efficiently can capture C02 and convert it into fuel so we can get weaned off of oil.We can create new food substances. ... We can create new ways to create clean water. We are already going to create new vaccines to treat diseases that emerge each year like the flu, so it's a new tool for scientists to work with."

Q: SHOULD we be making life "from scratch"/synthetically? Does the potential utility outweigh the hesitation to "play god" in this way? Is the hesitation to say this is a good thing based on religion (or morality derived from religion) and if so, how much say should it have on whether or not to continue these veins of research? 

 The Government has your Baby's DNA- CNN 4 February 2010

Babies are routinely screened for the typical spectrum of genetic diseases (anywhere between 28 and 54), and since this is mandated by the government this genetic testing frequently takes place without the parent's knowledge or consent. Add to that the fact that the DNA is then kept by the state in storage, for anywhere from 3 months to indefinitely, and a problem of privacy takes a starker form. The DNA is frequently used for a variety of genetic testing, the number of specimens of which would otherwise be unobtainable by researchers. However, since insurance frequently pays for the testing, if you test positive for a gene linked with a certain disorder, even if you don't end up having that disorder, it gets put on your permanent record of insurance and it could become a black mark in the future. 

Q: Does the value as a research tool mean more than asking permission for testing? How can we protect the wrong parties from accessing, or even just control who does get access to, the DNA that is collected? Should this store of DNA be protected by federal laws and regulations, not just state? And even so, who, if anyone, should have access? And should permission for testing be sought?


Are 'Test Tube Babies' Healthy?- Science NOW, February 21, 2010 


First U.S Test Tube Baby is a Mom- CNN, August 6 2010

An article summarizing the medical worries about so called “test-tube babies”. Recently the first test-tube baby in the United States, Elizabeth Carr, gave birth, which suggests that test-tube babies are at least capable of leading normal reproductive lives. However, as this article points out, the oldest test-tube baby is only in her 30s, meaning we don’t know about possible long-term conditions. Frequent low birth-weight in test-tube babies causes worry about long term conditions which have been linked to low-birth weight.

Q: Are test tube babies ethical? Does IVF propagate unhealthy genetic pairs? Does it take away more hope from children in the foster-care system by giving families unable to have children more ways to get their own? Is it selfish for mothers to have a dream of having “their own baby” when there are so many who need homes? Or is it the mother’s prerogative as long as they can pay?  Is IVF playing god? Is that a bad thing?

Academic Medical Centers Need Better Conflict of Interest Policies- KevinMD, August 9 2010


Harvard Puts Tighter Limits on Medical Faculty- Boston Globe, July 21 2010

The American Association for Medical Colleges (AAMC) has just made a report recommending a task force to deal with conflicts of interest. Frequently, professors seek financial aid through drug companies or other industrial research facilities. It is also a way for professors to “stay active in research and innovation”. However, less than 1% of members of the AAMC have a real policy on reporting conflicts of interest.  Harvard has just adopted a new policy including these details: “prohibit its 11,000 faculty from giving promotional talks for drug and medical device makers and accepting personal gifts, travel, or meals, under a new policy intended partly to guard against companies’ use of Harvard’s prestige to market their products. The conflict-of-interest rules also place stricter limits on the income faculty can earn from companies for consulting, joining boards, and other work; require public reporting of payments of at least $5,000 on a medical school website; and promise more robust internal reporting and monitoring of these relationships.” –Boston Globe

Q: Should disclosure of conflicts of interest be mandatory? If so, how detailed does the disclosure need to be? And what is the best way to report it and have people understand how it could or could not affect them? Should it be applicable to academic medicine, or medicine or even research in general?





Gerald Goodman's picture

need for a code of conduct in science

I found this argument somewhere on the internet, but can no longer locate it. Can someone help?

Since even honest mistakes in science can be hard to detect, and can be costly in terms of wasted resources and the misdirection of future research, it is desirable to reduce their incidence. Given that anyone can, in good faith, make mistakes, the best way to reduce the possibility of their happening is to adopt practices that can be expected to have that effect. Basically, that means reporting errors when they are found, and, if confirmed, having them corrected promptly.

In other words, a practical justification for having a code of conduct is that it helps protect scientific knowledge from human foibles.