Discretion, deception, and communication between scientists and non-scientists.

A recycled post from the ancestor of this blog, before anyone read it.

In my "Ethics in Science" class, we regularly use case studies as a way to practice reasoning about ethics. There's a case I've used a few times involving research with animals where the protagonist airs some of her concerns (specifically, about her PI telling her to change the approved protocol several weeks into the study) to a (non-scientist) roommate. In our class discussions of this case, the question arose as to whether the roommate should even be counted as an interested party in the situation. After all, she wasn't involved in the research. And, since she wasn't a scientist, she was in no position to assess whether the protocol was reasonable, whether the scientific question was an important one to answer, etc. So, you know ... butt out.

Indeed, one response I've heard to this case is that the protagonist might have an obligation not to discuss her research with outsiders, precisely because an outsider wouldn't really understand. And, not really understanding, an outsider might have a hissy fit about the poor bunnies and their suffering. And, in the throes of the hissy fit, the outsider might get PETA or ALF on the phone, and all of a sudden good science has been shot to hell by militant animal rights activists (or at least by negative public opinion).

But I worry a little about this response. I think there's a danger in only considering one's options in the context of the laboratory (or more precisely, in the context of one's advisor's laboratory). The danger that concerns me in keeping the deliberation inside this bubble is that one can lose sight of the interests that go beyond just getting publishable results. You might start to forget that the public has a stake in your research.

What's the public's stake? The public would like to benefit from the knowledge the research produced ... which means the public has an interest in the results being accurate. The public is likely involved (at least indirectly) in funding the research, and undoubtedly the public would like that funding to be used effectively ... which means a change in the protocol which might make the results difficult to interpret would be bad. The public (probably) has an interest in minimizing animal suffering ... which means if animal suffering is essential to solve this scientific problem, the public probably deserves an explanation of why the suffering is warranted in this case.

Anytime someone doesn't want to take the time to explain something to me, I get to wondering whether it's because she doesn't have a good explanation to offer.

When the tribe of science makes unilateral decisions about what those in society at large shouldn't worry their pretty little heads about (including how and why animals are used in research), scientists are either denying that the public has a stake, or denying that the public can act in its own interests to defend that stake. Or, I suppose, scientists could recognize that the public has a stake and is competent to defend its interests, but they might have decided that, since the goals of science and the goals of the public are at odds in some fundamental way, they're prepared to screw over the public. Which is probably a better move if you're not taking the public's money.

Getting outside the bubble might actually give you perspective and allow you to think through a decision from the point of view of other stake-holders. I think it's a good idea to explain the inside-the-bubble perspective to the outsider, and it probably doesn't hurt to be discreet about some of the specific details (like which building on campus houses the rabbits). But I think when discretion turns into secrecy, deception is a little too close, and a little too easy.

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The tension between discretion and explanation is one that Drugmonkey and I have been talking about on my blog over the last 24 hours. Or conversation centered on a new effort by the blogger Pimm to map all of the stem cell labs in the world using Google maps.

I joked that this would be a perfect way for stem cell activists to identify picketing targets, and Drugmonkey pointed out that embryonic stem cell research occurs at the intersection of the two most effective bioscience terror groups: anti-abortionists and the ALF.

Naming labs and universities is one thing, but I have to agree with Drugmonkey that the exact address on Google maps exposes researchers to undue risk, however small it may be. I appreciate how you present the scientists' obligation to explain why they need to do something that a sizable contingent of the public might question or object to.

Now the best way to do this... That seems like a good topic for that Seed science writing contest!

While I agree with some of the points you raised, the importance of being able to discuss your work with "outsiders," in this specific issue I disagree. The assumption is that by not talking about it with the roommate, the public at large is somehow none the wiser. However, the protocols must have been reviewed by an IACUC committee (here in the US at least), which contains members from the public, ie outsiders. This is only one level, animal numbers and protocols have to be approved by the NIH or other funding source and during this process justifications have to be provided at all levels of the research, need for the study, numbers used, method of analysis, and care of the animals. Basically all good things although the pendulum has swung so far to the limitation of animal research many people are shying away from it (this should not be considered a victory in my opinion). So I think the public awareness aspect is without merit here. The public, through representatives, is involved.

Further, we often here about how bad scientists can be discussing their work. Well, I expect untrained scientists are even worse. So the potential for incorrect things to be stated, or the wrong message to be conveyed to an outsider is likely much greater from a student than a PI, obviously with rare exceptions. If the student actually had concerns about the protocol, there are mechanisms for dealing with it internally, such as contacting IACUC. To my knowledge, all protocol changes must be approved by the IACUC committee, so its possible the student's advisor was breaking some rules. Maybe the student doesn't want to cause problems, but what is worse having IACUC reprimand the PI or PETA protesting outside the building and harassing everyone?

Keeping information away from the public for fear of a "terrorist" attack is not different from keeping secret the take-off time of a given flight for the same reason.

Law enforcement should deal with the terrorists. Scientists should be open and honest about their science and their protocols, including formally requesting a change in protocol via the standard channels (IACUC).

By S. Rivlin (not verified) on 01 Jul 2007 #permalink

Okay so if I have S.Rivlin's point correctly, we need airport style security at animal labs, professor's offices, their children's daycare and possibly their neighborhoods(see Ringach). Furthermore, we need to "profile" animal rights terrorists. Starting with any official mouthpieces of the usual outfits, who we can pretty much just throw in Gitmo right away based on public statements, and then the rank and file. Then interrogate right down to anyone looking suspiciously unclean or smelling of patchouli at rallies.

okay, I agree. At that point, scientist should have no qualms about discussing their research with absolutely anyone, you've convinced me!

Not having read the conversations between Drugmonkey and thomas robey, I cannot comment on Drugmonkey's ability to withdraw information from blog posts and blog comments.

But I didn't see any of that (airport security on-campus, profiling, Gitmo, etc) in S. Rivlin's comment. Rather, I saw something like: "scientists should leave law enforcement to law enforcement professionals as specific crimes occur. Furthermore, in the specific hypothetical situation described, appropriate channels for discussion and protocol changes already exist". Am I missing something?

TheBrummell: yes you are missing something. an understanding of sarcasm not to mention critical reading skills. Your interpretation/addition to S. Rivlin's comment is no more or less supported than mine because he didn't actually develop whatever thought was in mind. "law enforcement should deal with the terrorists" is the total of what he wrote. not "as specific crimes occur", that's your invention.

Let's try this another way. Take the first comment because it is an analogy worth exploring. "Keeping information away from the public for fear of a "terrorist" attack is not different from keeping secret the take-off time of a given flight for the same reason."

wtf? we don't do this with airlines of course so what is he saying? that we shouldn't keep all the details of science away from those that categorically disagree with the enterprise because those details are the essential information for the customer, like a departure schedule? this is absurd. The published science article is more similar to the departure schedule. The details of how the science is conducted is more analogous to behind the scenes aspects of air travel that we are not usually privy to. Air Marshal schedule? Who supplies goods and services maintaining air travel? Which airline screwed up a plane repair/maintenance which didn't result in an accident, was fixed, and led to procedural changes to prevent repeats? what pilots have been disciplined for? what their performance record is?

the list of items relevant to air travel to which we are not habitually aware of, and in some cases are explicit secrets, goes on and on. the public pays for this service too, both as ticket purchases and various federal supports of the system. wonder how the per-taxpayer costs of this compare to per-taxpayer costs of biomedical science, anyway? hmm?