Being a Responsible Scientist--The Challenges Ahead

When a group of scientists in Massachusetts claimed this week that they had cloned the first early human embryo--a breakthrough toward future therapeutic uses--the announcement immediately drew world-wide uproar and prompted a new series of debates on the legal, ethical, and scientific issues associated with this research. As long-held regards for biological development are repeatedly challenged and the implications of research become more complex and controversial, scientists today have to deal with many more ethical issues than their predecessors. Can our scientists continue to stand firm with integrity and credibility on untried ethical frontiers? And with the potential for technology to bring as much destruction as it does constructive breakthroughs, are our legislative systems well set to guard the interest of the common person?

It's no exaggeration to say that many of the students entering our graduate schools come starry-eyed at the innovations and discoveries that research brings but ill prepared to face the complex world of ethical scientific research. In our region's many universities, "research ethics" is either not taught at the undergraduate level or, if it is, it is not a compulsory course. So it's no wonder that incoming graduate students are so naive. Although some universities have started giving special modules for research students, many a budding scientist must teach themselves through informal seminars and conversations with speakers.

Given this, it is common for young researchers to resort to "going with the mainstream," unquestioningly following the herd mentality toward what is right and ethical. Amazingly, many still believe that proper research conduct can be learned and acquired in this way. Learn students do, but the informal "lessons" often prove more painful than the learning, and most students are badly shaken when confronted with real ethical dilemmas. I remember clearly an incident from graduate school days. One of my peers was asked to immortalize the DNA of a cohort of volunteers. Some of the subjects--obviously concerned that their DNA was about to be preserved for undefined purposes that were clearly beyond their further control--demanded more clarification. As junior members in the research hierarchy, my friend and I were hardly in a position then to resolve the issue. And back then, there were no official national guidelines or authoritative professional body to which we could turn for help.

Today, it is heartening to note that the situation has improved quite significantly, at least for Singapore. The Bioethics Advisory Committee was set up a year ago to "examine ethical, legal, and social issues arising from research on human biology and behavior and its applications; and develop and recommend policies to the Life Sciences Ministerial Committee, on legal, ethical and social issues, with the aim of protecting the rights and welfare of individuals, while allowing the biomedical sciences to develop and realize their full potential for the benefit of humankind." The Singapore Medical Association has also stepped up their efforts in organizing talks, seminars, and courses in medical ethics and bioethics. And the National Medical Ethics Committee has also set guidelines on gene technology to assist clinicians and doctor-researchers in making ethical decisions.

The next step, perhaps, is making a course on basic research ethics a part of the compulsory training for all those entering a career in scientific research. Such a course would help young scientists attain a solid grounding in ethical research from the very beginning. For early-career scientists, whether or not we should be cloning human embryos is perhaps less of an urgent issue than being given the opportunity to learn the basic conduct that is required for ethical research. Owing to the characteristics of their profession, they must, in the first place, be aware of the social and ethical implications of their work and learn to act responsibly. Much more than this, though, young scientists should be encouraged to articulate their day-to-day problems with ethical advisors. Other than being aware of the conventional issues of scientific misconduct--fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in research--our scientists must be prepared to face issues critical in today's scientific endeavors.

With increasing corporate participation in research and commercialisation of scientific innovation very much entrenched within the research enterprise, today's scientists can find themselves caught between two objectives--the open communication of science and the achievement of corporate goals. Issues of intellectual property rights, ownership of data and access to them, and control of publications are often matters of conflict. (See this week's ethics minifeature.) Manipulation of research data to suit corporate agendas has stunned the scientific community and the public alike. While explicit policies to reduce conflicts and malpractices help, scientists involved in corporate-funded projects must recognise professional integrity and responsibility. Science thrives on truth and the open communication of it. For a piece of work to become a permanent feature of science, it is critically important to have it fully open to peer and public scrutiny, review, and revision.

The limitless things that one can venture into in research with the astounding capability of modern technology has given rise to a multitude of ethical issues that were once never thought of. It is now possible to derive an enormous amount of information about a person from a single clinical sample. More often than not, when the subject gave that little sample, he or she would never have thought beyond that one little clinical test it was intended for. A classic example is the case of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were perpetuated and commercialized as the now universally known HeLa cells. Five decades from then, the descendants of the donor of the cells--for whose cells millions of dollars have exchanged hands in the form of royalties--asked for recognition of their mother's contribution. Shouldn't the owner of the cells own a part of the patent or receive part of the royalties from its commercialization?

The values of biospecimens continue to rise today as biotechnology allows the extraction of more and more information, even from archived samples. Concerns over ownerships, confidentialities, and research uses of these samples continue to trouble hospitals and ethical establishment worldwide. Informed consent is the main precondition for any ethical research. Archived samples present a unique challenge in that there is no valid consent and it is not always possible to track down the subject to get "fresh" consent. Even if consent has been given previously for research purposes, the question arises as to whether a single "generic" consent applies to all, indefinite, and multiple uses of an individual's sample.

These are but few of the many issues that pose much challenge to our scientists today. Even to experienced scientists, these issues are difficult to resolve because there is a lot of gray and little black and white. Often, the situation calls for very subtle evaluation. Research knows no end, but as a scientist, you can take control of what you do. It is always wise to do things right. When in doubt, do not proceed, but think about how you can get help and support from more experienced people and recognized advisory bodies. It is essential to keep yourself informed of the latest development in ethical issues. The links provided here and the related articles in this feature should lead you to a wealth of relevant information.

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