A Journey of Discovery: Learning Scientific Ethics

The summer before my third year of graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University, my thesis advisory committee "suggested" that I enroll in a class called Scientific Integrity. Scientific Integrity is the Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) course at our university that anyone receiving funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is required to take--and that was basically all I knew about the class. However, I was not exactly excited about taking it, as I was not on an NIH training grant and I was already overwhelmed with classes and research. The last thing that I was interested in was another "suggestion" for coursework. But of course, I dutifully enrolled and grudgingly attended the first class.

As I sat listening to the introductory remarks the professor was making, my mind wandered. I had always had an interest in science--I was one of those kids who played with bugs and wondered how corn seeds became such giant plants. I read scientific articles and marveled at new discoveries. Never did I doubt a scientist's word. Never did I imagine that anyone in a laboratory would falsify data because it made the principal investigator's hypothesis stronger. Why did I have to take a class about integrity? And how can you teach that? I was an honest person, and the thought of ethical behavior being taught to honest people seemed preposterous.

The Scientific Integrity course was designed with student interaction in mind. In class, we had a formal lecture followed by discussions of case studies. Each week a different student was chosen to lead the discussion, so participation by everyone was required. Presentation of different points of view was invaluable. The class was composed of graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members. Conversations were animated because different levels of experience led to very different interpretations. We learned very quickly that there are many sides to an issue. I learned that the gray areas in a case change, depending on prior experience. We did not always agree that a transgression had even transpired. I feel that a key to planning a successful RCR course is involving people; online or virtual learning cannot provide that critical ingredient.

When the course ended, I felt more enlightened. I realized that teaching ethical, or responsible, behavior is very important. Graduate students tend to develop in the cocoon of their chosen lab without much outside influence. In that protected environment, we learn the habits of postdocs and professors around us. Unfortunately, learning by example is not always the best way. If a student is not in a laboratory that practices responsible research, then unethical practices are inadvertently learned. Students should be given tools to learn to make ethical decisions and to think responsibly. An RCR course is such a tool.

Several months after the class had ended, I found that I was still thinking about ethical conflicts in science. And although teaching ethical behavior had been a ridiculous idea to me, I got a good deal of practical good out of taking that class. For example, I have been exposed to complex ethical issues through my work as a student representative on the university's Honor Council. As a jury member, I have sat in on some hearings in which "good people" had made poor choices based on their ignorance of responsible practices. Now, as an associate chairperson for the Honor Council, it is more than obvious to me that these RCR courses are an integral part of our training as graduate students.

One of my responsibilities in the Honor Council was organizing an Awareness Week for the University Honor System, a student-run system in which we all pledge to act with academic integrity. I decided to plan an event to inspire others (I hoped!) to think about our responsibilities as future scientists and health care providers. To accomplish this goal, I invited four speakers to serve as panelists in an Ethics Conference. Two were clinicians/professors at the university: one had expertise in human genetics/counseling, and the other was an expert in medical ethics. The third speaker was a hospital crisis counselor, and the fourth dealt with educational issues for organ donation and procurement. Each spoke about how ethics played a role in their daily work activities. Every speaker was inspiring. Audience participation was magnificent, and I left the conference feeling as though perhaps we had made a small impact. Maybe the event would lead to more discussions among students and raise awareness about our responsibility to the public.

My postconference euphoria soon came to an end. After a few days of reflection, I realized that we had been "preaching to the choir." Only interested students would have come to such an event, and interested students were already aware of the ramifications of their research and the need to be truthful. I began to think that maybe mandatory RCR courses were the only way to approach this problem.

Then one day, unexpectedly, I received an invitation to speak at a conference entitled "Promoting Responsible Conduct of Research: Policies, Challenges, and Opportunities," sponsored by Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research (PRIM&R) and Tufts University School of Medicine. I was asked to be on a panel with other students to present our perspectives on RCR courses.

The experience ignited a new passion. Now I know that there are endless ways to incorporate responsible conduct in our work every day. There are infinite approaches to show others how to find their paths. When the public reads about a scientific finding, they believe it. When a child learns of a new scientific discovery, she wants to know more. As future scientists, we have a duty to promote responsible and accurate research. We also have a responsibility to ourselves to explore the definitions and limits of ethical behavior. I encourage every student to enroll in an RCR course. You may think, as I did, that you have nothing to learn. Right is as different from wrong as black is from white. A fact is a fact. ...

Or is it?

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