Star Trek's character The Doctor, played by Robert Picardo (right) faced a moral dilemma: What to do with knowledge obtained through unethical research?

Moviestore collection Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

What watching Star Trek can teach you about scientific integrity

AMSTERDAM—Who says teaching about conflicts of interest, reporting bias, and research fraud needs to be dull? Fenneke Blom, the coordinator of the Netherlands Research Integrity Network, has developed a course that teaches scientific integrity by using fragments of Hollywood movies like Awakenings, Dallas Buyers Club, Kinsey, and Extreme Measures. (The full list is here.) Blom, who teaches at VU University Medical Center here, shared her experience this week at the fifth World Conference on Research Integrity. ScienceInsider sat down with her to discuss the project.

Q: Why use movies to teach integrity?

A: Movies are particularly useful because it’s easy to relate to the characters. You get the opportunity to read between the lines as well, more than in written cases. There are facial expressions and there’s music, which helps bring you in the actual situation. And of course we’ve selected movies containing relevant topics and dilemmas.

Q: Can you give an example?

A: At a certain moment in And the Band Played On, a movie about the discovery of AIDS, it’s becoming clear that the disease is sexually transmissible, but the scientists aren’t completely certain yet. At a press conference, they don’t want to cause nationwide panic, but for public health reasons they do want to warn people so that they can take measures. Two of the main characters clearly disagree on this. The one who’s in charge takes the more cautious approach, infuriating the other.

Q: How did the students respond to this?

A: They initially related more to the alarmist personality, but after our discussion they did see the dilemma and felt the decision was reasonable. We also discussed the relevance to the students’ own work. These were medical students, so they could find themselves in a similar position. Often it’s better to wait for more confirmatory results.

Q: What’s the goal of the discussions?
A: We try to teach them different perspectives. We use a conversation technique called moral case deliberation for assessing someone else’s norms and values in a certain situation—and your own. The goal is to investigate the dilemma and come to a well-considered choice, not necessarily to solve it.

Q: What other dilemmas did you cover?

A: The same movie contains a scene in which a scientist gets mad at a colleague for sharing data with another lab. For the good cause it’s better to share, it might force a breakthrough, but there are other interests at stake, such as scientific glory. There’s often a conflict between what’s good for the scientist and what’s good for science.  

Q: You also used an episode of Star Trek. Why was that?

A: In the 1998 episode Nothing Human, the chief physician of a spaceship creates a hologram of an exobiology expert who he wants to consult in order to save the life a crew member. The consultation goes well, until the crew member sees the expert and refuses further treatment because of his involvement in a series of experiments that killed thousands of subjects. What is the doctor to do? There’s a similar discussion about science conducted under the Nazi regime. What do you do with data collected in an unethical way? The example is science fiction, but the dilemma is real and easy to imagine.

Q: Are you doing research on the effectiveness of this approach?

A: The project is still in its infancy. So far, the students are very positive and so are we. We’ll evaluate the course to see what worked well and what didn’t. I’d like to expand our collection, too. We visited Inez de Beaufort, a medical ethics professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, who has worked a lot with movie fragments. When she opened her cabinet, it was like we were in a candy shop. We returned with a bag full of DVDs.

Q: I suppose it’s fun for the students?

A: Well, indeed. Once you tell them they’re going to watch movie clips today, you’re already winning.

 

Update, 20 June, 6:15 a.m.: The definition of moral reasoning has been clarified to indicate that it includes assessing one's own values. Blom's affiliation has been corrected; a previous version of this story said she teaches at the Free University.