Sunday, February 10, 2008

Reving Our Optimism For Scientific Research

The latest issue of EMBO Reports contains two very interesting items pertaining to science and ethics. The first is Frank Gannon's excellent editorial entitled "The End of Optimism?". Frank notes that back in the 1950's and 60's "citizens believed that scientists could free humanity from the constraints of Earth and reach for new frontiers". But now this optimism is gone. Advances in genetics have been met with concerns that scientists are "playing God"; advances in genetically modified crops have been met with enormous suspicion, etc. What has caused this transformation in the public's attitudes? Frank notes that there are many causes, like the media's tendency to reduce scientific research into a sensational "sound-bite", and scientists themselves are partly to blame when they exaggerate the implications of their research.

Frank effectively illustrates how science is on the retreat when he claims "a clear sign of the lack of optimism is the continued trust in alternative 'natural' cures, and the fact that scientists and politicians need to reiterate constantly the message that research is our best strategy to meet the needs of society". The latter insight is particularly apt for Canadians given that our Prime Minister recently abolished the national science advisor post! Frank finishes the editorial with this paragraph:

As a community, scientists must therefore work hard to counter this creeping cynicism and instill a healthy dose of optimism about what science can do—albeit in a fair and balanced way. We have to do this for ourselves as well as society at large. We have to explain the complexities of the tasks that lie ahead and, at the same time, highlight the genuine successes that scientific research has achieved. We must counter the cheap shots directed against honest and determined scientists, and reign in those who overstate their work and its implications. But more than anything else, we have to stress time and again that rigorous research is the only way to discover the cures and solutions needed for the twenty-first century. This optimistic message must also encourage the younger generation to join the quest for understanding and help to develop the new services and products that come from it. Sputnik was a huge technological and scientific breakthrough; it was a testament to human ingenuity that led all societies to invest more in education and research. Today, that optimism is waning, and we are facing an even bigger and more universal challenge; one that we must meet with optimism for exciting and successful scientific research.

The EMBO Report also has this interesting article entitled "A Question of Method: The Ethics of Managing Conflicts of Interest" by Samia Hurst and Alex Mauron. Potential conflicts of interest raise a number of pressing issues that must be addressed if we hope to protect the integrity of biomedical research. The author's argue that a "conflict of interest is acceptable if the joint activity is motivated by at least one shared primary interest, if regulation is possible to protect primary interests and if there is an exit strategy in case the partners' aims diverge too far".

Here are a few samples from the article:

Conflicts of interest in biomedical research can endanger the independent judgement of researchers and, in a worst-case scenario, can result in harm to humans, animals or the environment, or avoidable damage to scientifically validated truths. Highly publicized cases of scientists who have downplayed the risk of passive smoking—while receiving funding from the tobacco industry—or researchers who have questioned anthropogenic global climate change—yet are supported by the coal or oil industries—(LaDou et al, 2007) have attracted persistent, and often appropriate, criticism.

A conflict of interest occurs when someone in a position of trust—for example, an academic researcher, lawyer or physician—has competing private and professional interests that make it more difficult to fulfil his or her professional duties without bias. However, a conflict of interest in itself is not necessarily bad, as long as the 'right' interests prevail.

Nevertheless, conflicts of interest can create an impression of impropriety that, in the long run, might undermine the credibility of an individual or even an entire profession. At a time when policy-makers, politicians and the public increasingly rely on scientific advice about controversial issues—for example, human embryonic stem cells, genetically modified crops or global climate change—conflicts of interest diminish the public's trust in the independence and unbiased judgement of academic scientists. To maintain trust, researchers must remain visibly trustworthy, which requires a careful and explicit management of conflicts of interest.

....Academics ought to give priority to their primary interests—generating knowledge, integrity, transparency and openness—and make it clear to all their partners that they will stick to these. Organizational structures should support and enable them to assess their priorities as if the conflict of interest did not exist.

The EMBO Report editorial, coupled with the article about the importance of managing conflict of interests in scientific research, effectively show why we cannot remain complacent about science. To create a more humane world we must remain vigilantly committed to the importance of science, both at the level of public policy and in our culture as a whole. The health of a polity's science policy is only as good as the health of a society's attitude towards science more generally. And I believe that science needs more champions if we are to stand a chance of creating a better future. From politicians and journalists to academics and parents, we all need to take a serious reflective look at our attitude towards science. To those who remain sceptical about what science might offer us, just consider what kind of world our children will inherit if we don't embrace and celebrate science. A world with more dogma, more poverty, more disease, etc. The stakes are very high indeed. And it's about time that we all got more serious about protecting the role of science in our culture.