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Lab Bench Ethics

Jonathan Moreno Talks with Fred Grinnell About Everyday Practice of Science

beaker in a lab with two scientists working the background SOURCE: The ethics of data selection, the potential conflicts of peer review, the “soft money lifestyle” of grant recipients, and other issues facing researchers.
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Fred Grinnell, a professor of cell biology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, is a man of many interests. A traditional bench scientist, research was always his passion, but over the years Grinnell expanded his academic pursuits to include bioethics and philosophy.

He joined CAP senior fellow Jonathan Moreno to discuss his new book, Everyday Practice of Science: Where Intuition and Passion Meet Objectivity and Logic. The short text aims to help anyone interested in science—lay readers and experts alike—understand the nature of experimentation and what science looks like on a daily basis. According to Grinnell, there’s a lot more to think about than most people might assume at first. To listen to the podcast of the conversation, see the audio player above, download the mp3, or subscribe via iTunes.

Many practitioners, for instance, do not realize that their scientific research may have ethical ramifications, Grinnell said. When scientists repeat their experiments, they accumulate ten to fifteen notebooks with many sets of data that eventually become a paper. Since this is a typical process in research, “Data selection has to occur. It’s inevitable,” he explained. However, because there are responsible and irresponsible ways to select data, scientists need to establish a “transparent” and “reasonable” method. Since “golden data for one person may look like nonsense to another,” leading to accusations of “dishonest data selection,” students must learn about and always be aware of this very thin line, Grinnell said.

Everyday Practice of Science: Where Intuition and Passion Meet Objectivity and Logic

book cover of Everyday Practice of Science by Fred Grinnell

Oxford University Press

It is also important for people interested in U.S. research to understand how science is funded and supported, as grant awards often dictate a scientist’s professional life for years at a time, Grinnell said. These funding cycles can create a “soft money lifestyle” for some scientists, where “faculty have become responsible for raising some or all of their own salaries as part of their research grants,” a process, he explains, which “creates all sorts of conflicts of interest.”

“There’s a certain degree of tension that’s created in that system and a certain degree of uncertainty because from year to year, depending upon what Congress does, there may be more money or less money,” he said. This year, the Recovery Act provides additional research dollars, but many scientists are already worrying about what will happen several years down the road when the additional funding stops, yet these additional projects are underway. “Does that mean that they’re all going to be competing at the same time for money and then the success rates will go down?” he asked.

Grinnell himself recently won funding to extend his own research grant for the next four years, which will take him “beyond the end of the stimulus package.” From a practical point of view, he is happy, but he acknowledges many other researchers may not be as lucky. The system is inherently chancy, he said, since the success of an application is affected by nonscientific factors such as the time at which you submit your proposal.

Grant proposals, like research papers, are dependent upon peer review. In the peer review process for funding, other scientists help read proposals and determine whether the research is worthy of support. This is a valuable process for the science community, but it may have unintended consequences, Grinnell said.

“The people who are the peer reviewers are the ones who often understand the work the best, but they’re also the ones who have the best opportunity to potentially utilize or at least be influenced by this advanced knowledge.” The result, he said, is that peer review “is an advantage for the peer reviewer that people who are not peer reviewers don’t have.” Moreno, a reviewer himself, agreed, noting that he learns a lot about what is happening in his field by reading other people’s grant applications.

The National Academies’ definition of conflicts of interest has two parts, Grinnell noted: one covers financial conflicts, and the other indicates that anyone with a personal advantage is in conflict. Paradoxically, he said, peer reviewers gain a personal advantage  because they read about cutting-edge research before their colleagues, and that inevitably influences their behavior.

In the last chapter of his book Grinnell explores a different apparent conflict between faith and science. On the issue of whether intelligent design should be taught in science classes, he offers a clear “no,” since “it’s just not science.” However, science and religion are not necessarily in opposition, Grinnell said. To explain, he draws an analogy from the quantum physics model of of complementarity. “You can have two things that are complementary in such a strong sense that they are both right. And because they are separate, however, you can’t judge one against the other,” he said. On the one hand, he said, a claim that the Earth is 6,000 years old doesn’t make any sense. But if religion makes the claim that “life has meaning,” that’s just not a claim that science can judge very well.

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