Adventures in Ethics and Science

i-f50721212cecbbbc0b952297fd89f33b-Ethics_DVD_box.gifOn this blog I occasionally note a major motion picture that is (tangentially) related to ethics in science, not to mention seeking your advice on my movie-viewing decisions (the votes are running 2 to 1 in favor of my watching Flash Gordon; if I do, I may have to live-blog it).

Today, I’m going to give you an actual review* of a DVD whose subject is ethical scientific research.

Because you ought to have options when planning your weekend!

A member of the Adventures in Ethics and Science Field Team brought me a DVD to review, “Ethics in Biomedical Research”. This is a DVD produced by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. According to the HHMI website, the online catalogue offers “a variety of award-winning publications, videos and other materials–all free.” That means this DVD is free for the asking, too.

As the title suggests, the focus of the DVD is the ethical issues around biomedical research. There are four parts: Overview (28 minutes), Animal subjects (19 minutes), Genetic alteration (17 minutes) and Scientific integrity (15 minutes). I was a bit surprised that human subjects didn’t get their own dedicated section, but they are discussed in the Overview and the Genetic alteration parts.

The overarching message of the DVD is that ethical issues come up especially where scientists doing biomedical research and the public have overlapping interests (what can be cured, what kind of research is necessary to develop the cure, what will it cost, etc.). However, attention is also paid to ethical questions that come up within scientific communities, quite apart from the public’s interests and concerns. The filmakers make it clear that ethical issues are complicated, requiring serious efforts to balance risks and benefits (including future outcomes which are uncertain). But, the DVD encourages scientists to face the ethical questions rather than setting them aside for someone else to handle. Indeed, the message is that taking concerns from different quarters seriously, and discussing them ahead of time (rather than after something bad has happened) ought to be part of the everyday activity of doing science.

The DVD has the kind of lovely footage you’d expect of laboratory apparatus, imaging of microbiological systems, and well-maintained laboratory animals. (I swear, they even made the fruit-flies cute.) There is also the standard footage of principal investigators sitting in their office chairs holding forth about the responsible conduct of research, members of Congress (and the President) speaking about stem-cell research, recipients of treatments that resulted from biomedical advances, protesters of various sorts, and a few professional ethicists. More surprising: we also get to hear the opinions of scientists who are not principal investigators — actual students and lab technicians. And, there are at least two separate research groups having laboratory meetings devoted to discussing ethical issues in scientific research. (The coolness of watching such a group meeting is undercut a bit by the shaky-cam.)

As far as content goes, there are some important historical mileposts (the Nazi “medical” experiments and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the 1975 Asilomar meeting to evaluate the risks of recombinant DNA research). There is also mention of institutional, federal, and international standards that apply to particular kinds of biomedical research (especially research with animal and human subjects). The DVD does include a brief discussion of the three guiding ethical principles in the Belmont Report, and while it can’t, for obvious reasons, present all the salient information from institutional guidelines and policy manuals, mentioning that such guideline and manuals exist conveys useful information to the scientist and the scientist-in-training.

But, as the introduction to the DVD makes clear, the sections of the DVD “pose questions but few answers.” And in this regard, the DVD is extremely impressive. The interviewees present a wide range of opinions about various ethical issues, from germline alteration to authorship, from financial conflicts of interest to the pressures inherent in the competitive world of cutting-edge research. All of the views in the DVD are presented as worth taking seriously, and the film makers seem to have made a real effort to find some that might challenge more comfortable assumptions within the world of science. (For example, one of the interviewees in the Animal subjects section is Tom Regan.) The aim of the DVD is clearly not to cram “all the answers” into 79 minutes of footage, but rather to raise questions and to open discussions — not only between scientists and non-scientists, but also among scientists. The introduction claims that the DVD content is “presented to stimulate more in-depth discussion, such as in a research group meeting or a classroom setting.”

Would I use this DVD in a classroom setting? While it doesn’t add any content to my course, it might be useful to my students to see scientists talking seriously about scientific issues. Too, seeing the diversity of views the scientists express in the DVD, and their apparent willingness to work with others to figure out the most responsible course of action in different situations would probably be good for the handful of students I have who start out inclined to reject the whole enterprise of ethics because there are “no right answers” and it’s all “just made up”.

But, I could see this DVD coming in handy in a course designed to prepare students to conduct independent laboratory research, especially in the biomedical sciences. (The Scientific integrity section would work well for students or scientific trainees in pretty much any scientific field.)

A notable absence in this DVD is any explicit role for philosophical tools like ethical theories. Possibly the filmmakers thought ethical theories would be of no use to scientists in the trenches … but then, I have to ask, how should we reconcile this with the tendency to push off students’ ethical training onto philosophy departments? Indeed, I have this nagging worry that DVDs like this (and, I really think this is an excellent DVD) will be substituted for discussions in classroom settings or in research group meetings. “Why yes, we take research ethics seriously. See? We have the DVD!”

Lest you think I’m being overly pessimistic, the member of the Adventures in Ethics and Science Field Team found this DVD tucked away on a bookshelf in a research laboratory. Apparently, it had been provided to the research group by the funding agency.

It was still in the shrink wrap.

*I originally posted the review on the ancestor of this weblog.


  1. #1 bob koepp
    June 9, 2007

    Philosophy departments are probably the best place for budding scientists to learn how to think about ethical problems, but that’s no substitute for ethical training, i.e., the inculcation of values and attitudes that show themselves in one’s day-to-day activities. Role models are the tried and true method for that sort of traning. Having students watch and discuss a DVD where real live scientists wrestle with ethical issues is valuable, but it’s much better when their own scientific mentors demonstrate real concern for doing the right thing.

  2. #2 Melinda Barton
    June 10, 2007

    I’m going to have to get that DVD. In the meantime, I’d like to ask your opinion on a question of scientific ethics that has recently arisen. Considering your field of expertise, you’d obviously be familiar with the Nuremberg Code and its role in medical ethics. What I’d like to know is: How do you feel about the government’s recent decision to sidestep the Nuremberg Code and the principle of informed consent in recent studies? I’ve posted on it here:

  3. #3 Drugmonkey
    June 10, 2007

    Recalling that you are launching a study of some sort at your Institute and engaging in my usual reflex, i searched the PAs and RFAs for signs of NIH interest in scientific ethics related projects. Nada. At least not on first blush so I’ll have to do some more digging. This seems unusual. For those not as up on NIH interests they do indeed fund a lot of seemingly indirect things having to do with the research process.

    Luckily the response is the same whether there are PA/RFA signs of programmatic interest or not. Write a grant!

    Seriously, Dr. Free-Ride, you should consider this. I can see a number of approaches from plain old surveys to answer some of the questions raised in your Manifesto regarding perceptions to course-design issues raised in your pondering about who teaches the ethics courses.

  4. #4 Bill
    June 10, 2007

    Drugmonkey’s right, it would be good to have more research into researcher attitudes to ethics. If, that is, you can find a way to get researchers to respond honestly — which I don’t think you can.

    The only reason, for instance, that they incriminated themselves in that recent “normal misbehaviour” paper was that they really didn’t think that the misbehaviour to which they were admitting was wrong.

    If they know someone’s watching, scientists (like anyone else) will write what they think they should do, not what they really do. Anonymous responses help, but don’t solve this problem because there’s still the “don’t make the community look bad” reflex. It’s difficult to measure the gap between true responses and the closer-but-still-not-completely-honest responses you get from anonymity. You need some kind of revealed-preferences mechanism, and some sort of objective measure of actual behaviour (these would also make interesting contrasts with reported attitudes).

  5. #5 Liz
    June 11, 2007

    Melinda, if you haven’t seen it already, you may also be interested in a recent JAMA commentary by Sheldon Krimsky and Tania Simoncelli regarding the EPA’s decision to accept human subject studies – one of the things they discuss is how this is a departure from the Nuremberg Code (I blogged about it here).

    Sheldon Krimsky will be speaking about this tomorrow morning at the ACLU’s legislative offices in DC.

  6. #6 Melinda Barton
    June 13, 2007

    Thanks, Liz. I wish I’d been able to take off work to hear Krimsky speak. This issue really should be receiving far more press attention than it’s getting. By the way, I’ve linked to your post on my blog, so at least a few more people will become aware of what’s going on.

  7. #7 Rick Bogle
    June 16, 2007

    After reading your post, I visited the HHMI site and ordered a couple of the free dvds. Thanks for pointing to them. I watched the animal subjects section of the ethics disc.

    It is really nothing put a propaganda piece.

    You wrote: “The DVD has the kind of lovely footage you’d expect of laboratory apparatus, imaging of microbiological systems, and well-maintained laboratory animals.”

    Indeed. The scene of the caged macaques is atypical. Go to any lab supply website selling primate cages to get an idea of what the typical housing looks like. How can real-world ethical decisions be made if the situations under consideration are intentionally skewed?

    The scenes of the chaired macaque with the brain implants is carefully cropped. Why wasn’t the entire apparatus shown? The chair and the skull cap are kept out of the shot. His/her head is bolted into place, but the average viewer could not be expected to know that. I suspect that that monkey was being kept in a situation much different than the group cage shown.

    And the mantra about stringent oversight is poppycock. The only serious evaluation of the IACUC system — considered the keystone the AWA — (Plous and Herzog. Science. 2001.) found that

    Protocol evaluations from the originating committee and from the second committee were not significantly related to one another…. This absence of a relation was found not only across the full set of 150 protocols, but for relatively invasive research involving procedures such as electric shock, food or water deprivation, surgery, and drug or alcohol research…; for protocols involving euthanasia…; and for protocols in which the reviewing IACUC expected animals to experience a significant amount of pain…. Thus, regardless of whether the research involved terminal or painful procedures, IACUC protocol reviews did not exceed chance levels of intercommittee agreement….

    And the scene with the woman testing her son’s blood was just over the top. Of course a mother of an ill child is going to say do what ever it takes to save my child… what gives her the scientific authority to claim that we “have to experiment on something.”

    This passes muster for being a reasonable ethics presentation? Sheesh.

    I particularly liked the bit where the researcher referred to rodents as “preparations.” That’s respect for the animals alright.

    And what crap at the end: We have to be respectful of everyone’s opinions on this issue. Why? Did we need to be respectful of the opinions of slave owners, human trafficers, rapists? Could’t some current opinions be so wrong as to not deserve respect? How about the support of purdah?

    Now, you could use this dvd in an ethics class, but doing so will promote an illusion and be less than honest.

    This was pure propaganda.

  8. #8 anontoavoidthistroll
    June 27, 2007

    “so wrong as to not deserve respect?”. “promote an illusion and be less than honest” “propaganda piece”

    that would be the animal right’s extremist’s position, but of course you know all about that , don’t you rick?

    you crack me up. you want openness and transparency and the ability to hover over a scientist’s shoulder, allegedly. you bleat on about how resistance to this proves scientists are up to no good, ditto some “missing Wisconsin data” you are always on about. and yet, you and your ilk do precisely as much as you can to prevent openness on the part of scientists by engaging in terrorism. this is why nobody takes you seriously in what you say because it is so clearly hypocritical. you don’t actually care whether animals are treated well or poorly in research labs because it is all the same to you because they ARE being used. so stop talking about welfare and treatment and just continue to bleat on about your real belief. the PETA dog dumpers, UMinn release-animals-in-the-fielders and the like show us so clearly that you all care not one whit for individual animal welfare but only for stopping all research with animals.

    why not be honest about it so that at the least someone can respect your argument?

  9. #9 Drugmonkey
    July 2, 2007

    thanks to writedit
    for finding an active grant on the topic i was musing above.

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