Ethics case study: science goes to the dogs.

I want to apologize for the infrequency of my posting lately. Much of it can be laid at the feet of end-of-term grading, although today I've been occupied with a meeting of scientists at different career stages to which I was invited to speak about some topics I discuss here. (More about that later.) June will have more substantive ethics-y posts, honest!

Indeed, to tide you over, I want to ask for your responses to a case study I wrote for the final exam for my "Ethics in Science" class.

First, the case:

Peter is a graduate student in a laboratory that does a variety of research projects, including work with tissue culture and in vivo studies with mice.

â¨Lately, a couple of Peter's classmates, one of the lab technicians, and even Peter's advisor have been bringing their dogs with them to work. At first, the dogs stayed in the office spaces, but now they seem to have free run of the laboratory area. This worries Peter a lot. Some of the materials used in their lab work would be harmful to the dogs if ingested (as would broken glassware). Since one of the dogs is a puppy that isn't yet trained and has been leaving puddles on the lab floor, its presences introduces a safety hazard for the humans working in the lab (who might slip on the puddles). Most worrying to Peter, the scent of the dogs seems to be stressing out the mice they are using in their studies, something that might affect the quality of the data they get from these in vivo studies as well as increasing mouse distress.

â¨Peter has tried raising these concerns with his advisor, but his advisor has not taken them very seriously. Peter feels like this is a serious issue in terms of human safety, the well being of the mice, the well being of the pet dogs, and the data quality. However, he is afraid that if he reports the situation to the IACUC, even anonymously, it will be obvious to his advisor that he was the one who made the complaint.

â¨Should Peter communicate his concerns to the IACUC? Why or why not?

Now, the special instructions for the blog audience in thinking about your response:

Imagine the PI in this case (Peter's advisor) is your colleague, and that you and this PI are at approximately the same career stage with approximately the same amount of power. What would you want Peter to do in this situation? What would you advise Peter to do (and would this differ from what you'd want him to do)? If you were aware of the situation (e.g., because Peter mentioned it to you), what, if anything, would you do about it?

Note that if you think it will lead to a more candid discussion about this case, you are welcome to adopt a pseudonym for the purposes of this discussion.

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Peter should start looking for a new line of work (and given his career prospects in biomed research this is probably the best thing that could happen to him anyway), but what I want to know is -- what are the mice doing in the open lab in the first place? Like Jason at #9, I'm not familiar with any animal facility that the dogs could possibly get into.

Because I was on the Animal Care Committee, and I would have observed how my colleague was running his lab; I would have spoken with him, and if he did not straighten up, I would have taken the case to the Animal Care Committee, and shut his lab down. So that means I don't have to think about what Peter should do. It is a good question, however.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 24 May 2010 #permalink

Woof! That's a tough one. I have brought my dog into the office, though she was never allowed into the lab, if only for her own safety. I received an anonymous complaint, delivered by the office chief that she was wandering the halls while I was in the lab. I attempted to remedy the situation, though by the time I had worked out a system, we had another dog on the homefront (an older refugee from family moving overseas) and the two could not both come in to the office. They both ended up entertaining each-other at home and it all worked out well.

I have to admit I was annoyed that the complaint was anon., but I suppose I understand the need: not everyone would react positively to a colleague requesting remedy.

Were the PI a colleague (and with the experience I have had) I would probably talk to the PI myself, and if I were involved with the project, I would certainly do so. A lot of that depends on the temperament of the PI, though. Depending on my relationship with the PI, I would either advise Peter to say nothing for the time being, or if I could not talk with the PI, I would advise him to submit a confidential complaint, and I would do the same.

The power differential between Peter and the PI is something too strong to be ignored, and my professional obligation to good science at my institution, I feel, requires my action; both to minimize the impact on the science and to defuse tensions amongst colleagues.

I will admit, though, that I am more in Peter's position than in the full colleague's position, so my response, perhaps like those of your students, is based more upon what I think is right (and what I hope my advisers would do) than what I would actually do.

So, am I ethical?

Am I missing the allegory or something? Because taken straight, as written, this is absolute PI insanity. Having the smell of predators around where you are trying to do in vivo rodent work? You have totally uncontrolled stress experiments going on whether you want them or not. Crazy! That's even before you get to the regulatory oversight hot water you are standing in...

If I were being this big of an idiot about something that was going to affect an aspect of my work this much I'd want my lab to tell me. You bet.

By Cleveland (not verified) on 24 May 2010 #permalink

I would bring it to another faculty member in the department and discuss it. If not resolved there, go to the chair. That department has responsibilities to the IACUC, I would think.

But I was lucky--I had the advisor everyone went to for advice in my department....She was teh awesome. She was ethical beyond any doubt, and she was discreet and wise, and would have figured out how to manage to do it without repercussions to the student.

A direct option might be to return to the advisor and say something like:

"I know you don't think having the dogs in the lab is a problem, but I really think that it is. The mice are showing signs of stress, such as ABC. I'm very concerned this will affect our experiments, since it's well established in the literature that stress can have effects on mice such as XYZ.

If you still think I'm wrong, then with your permission, I'd like to ask the opinion of the IACUC vet. I think she would be the best one to help us resolve whether this could be an issue."

Of course, this assumes that the PI is at least somewhat reasonable. If not, Peter might be better off considering a lab transfer. That would suck, and could create career problems for him (depending on how powerful and vindictive his old PI might be). But it might still be better than trying to complete a thesis project using mice that are constantly under stress.

If that seems like his best option, I'd suggest he go to a friendly administrator and lay out the situation first, saying, "I feel obligated to notify the IACUC and the administration, but I'm afraid my PI will retaliate, or that it will poison our working relationship and make it very hard for me to complete my thesis. What are my options as far as changing labs?"

You know, I just have to say, I used to teach ethics in computer science courses (and designed one!) and this kind of scenario _never_ came up. But I am now thinking of a final exam question that goes "The chief engineer brings dogs into the lab with the robot work. Peter is worried that the dog may be injured by the robot, or that the robot's gears will get gummed up with dog hair...."

Seriously, this is a classic case of issues in supervisor/supervisee relationships which arise in any field of science or engineering. I have been touched and impressed by the maturity several of my students showed as they related how they had handled such issues during summer internships and regular jobs.

And thank you for writing this blog. In CS, many people do not consider ethical issues (including privacy, security, workplace issues, basic intellectual integrity issues) and I regularly see parallels between what you write about the life sciences and the mathematical and engineering disciplines.

Coming from the powerless student perspective, I'd recommend a very indirect route of informing IACUC. A little gossip to the correct colleagues would ensure that the dogs' presence would become common knowledge, eventually (hopefully) something would be done. My other thought is to go to a senior PI that could take care of the problem. Recommend a little stop-by on the weekend for a chat while the dogs are there, and the problem would hopefully be solved.

Agreed- sticky situation. As a hypothetical, fellow PI, I would want Peter to get advice from a few people outside the lab- like myself for example. Raising the issue with IACUC is going to be a BIG deal for Peter's co-PI, and Peter really ought to know what he is getting himself into- it won't be pretty. Hopefully, Peter would find the right kind of people to talk to about this who would discreetly but firmly get his PI back inline without IACUC needing to drop the hammer. But I would have to tell Peter it's better IACUC get involved now, than ORI some years down the road. And I would have to stand up for him- make sure he gets placed in another (dogless) lab, because I don't really see Peter having a long a fruitful relationship with his PI after all of that goes down.

But I am pretty sure if I were that equally powerful co-PI, I would regret my open door policy just a bit after that meeting.

In my MRU we have a vivarium where you can't even walk inside without passing through 4 card-swiped doors and without having shoe covers on...I'm pretty sure the presence of a pet dog would be pretty quickly felt by many. Not to mention the closed-circuit security cameras and everything.

That said, I feel like I'd find a way to have a confidential conversation with a member of the IACUC or one of the managers of the vivarium and perhaps encourage him or her to casually drop by the lab unannounced on a day the dog was present. Of course, that would only be after attempting to broach the subject with the PI and failing.

Is this ethical? Is it a "set up"? I think the fact that these animals could be dying for no reason (because of useless data) comes before protecting the PI's reputation or ego.

If Peter goes straight to IAUCUC, his lab and therefore his own work is basically fucked. If no progress can be made with his PI, then he has a responsibility to write to the dept chair or other person of power (that is not IAUCUC)either anonymously or using his name (since his PI knows anyway). How the chips then fall between Peter and his PI depends on many things; what sort of relationship they already have, how far into his research he is, etc. He may have to suck it up until he's done or, hopefully, if he is working in a lab that is so careless, he'll find another, more serious gig.

I don't know how IACUC is in your neck of the woods, but around these parts, they are known for insisting on totally irrational "interventions."

Peter is fucked no matter what he does. If he squeals (which is the right thing to do, after having been blown off by the PI), not only will his lab get shut down but the PI will poison his career chances. If he doesn't squeal, his experiments will be crap and sooner or later someone else will shut that shit down, and the PI will assume it was Peter. If the someone else doesn't do it anonymously, the PI will still blame Peter because having the lab shut down is so traumatic that he/she will need to lash out in every possible direction so as to avoid taking responsibility.

Peter should start looking for a new line of work (and given his career prospects in biomed research this is probably the best thing that could happen to him anyway), but what I want to know is -- what are the mice doing in the open lab in the first place? Like Jason at #9, I'm not familiar with any animal facility that the dogs could possibly get into.

No brainer - if the PI is not receptive this should go to the IACUC. If the student feels uncomfortable, any university has an ombudsman office that can help mediate this scenario.

By Dario Ringach (not verified) on 25 May 2010 #permalink

I find it unlikely that if Peter goes to IACUC the lab will be shut down. They will just ask the PI to enforce a no-dog rule in the lab and that's that. Plus if there are multiple dogs and puppies running rampant in the lab, it is surely common knowledge to everyone else in the department that this is going on, so an anonymous complaint could come from anyone, not just Peter.

My 5 cents...
The description states that "Peter has tried raising these concerns with his advisor...".
There isn't much of an indication of how the concerns were raised.
I would advise Peter to approach the PI again. This time write down each concern and then request a sit-down meeting/chat with the adviser where he can go through each concern. Having them written down may then help as a prompt if the chat becomes heated or if Peter is prone to forget things in stressful situations etc. A lot of it depends on the relationship Peter has with the PI and the temperament of the PI. I would tell Peter that he is very welcome to run his concerns past me first. If I think his concerns are legitimate I would offer to attend the meeting to act as mediator of sorts. I would also first approach the PI to have an informal chat about the situation to understand his stance on the matter and offer my 2 cents.
If the PI truly believes that the concerns are without foundation he should hopefully explain his reasons to Peter. I would suggest to Peter that he should ask for and try to understand the PIs reasons for rejecting his concerns (there may be good reasons). I would suggest to Peter that if he remains unconvinced by the explanations and feels strongly about the issue (which he should) he should tell the PI exactly that and let the PI know that he will be taking the issues up with the IACUC. If I was involved with the meeting and I was also unconvinced by the explanations offered I would offer to support Peter in his further efforts.
Office politics...gross.

By not_hippy (not verified) on 27 May 2010 #permalink

One thing I like about this blog, it does not attract wackos, unless it's me unbeknownst, who has only worked with rocks, chemicals, and a great deal of people.

So Peter considers the ins and outs of office politics. He has come to me. I must tell Peter that I will not act for him but I might act on principle. Good reason for that later. Only sounds cruel. What do I want to know first? I want to know how much heat he can take, how far I can go. This is easily ascertained by finding out discretely if his personal life is in order. This means relationships, finances, other vulnerabilities, taxes, rent, mortgage maybe. "A man who hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune." -- that sage Bacon. He can't perform very well in a battle if he is worried about whether his kids are going to have cereal next week. "If your personal life is not right, nothing goes right." --that sage Bill Cosby. Oddly enough, this means that he, we, you cannot be as quickly ethical if vulnerable, must hesitate. We don't want to believe this.

Suppose I find out what I would like to know. That tells me how much and how I will need to help. Next, I will need to go alone and talk to the person of "equal power" to make sure that the issues are as Peter described them to me. I would expect to find something additional, for the effect of the dog on the mice seems an easy issue.

Still, Peter needs protection. So I would try to set up a 3-way conference with myself, Peter, and "equal power." If "equal" does not agree to it, the first hostile shot has been fired, by him, and to his disadvantage, which would continue. The committees and persons in real power would follow seriatum.

And suppose Peter wins. What is your (my) relation to him afterwards? Are you (am I) now his real sponsor, his champion from now on? Since you, or I, have stated clearly to be acting on principle, no. On the other hand, you might rather like him as a friend, to teach him how to be a swan instead of goose, and not a swoose.