The blog of the 2009 – 2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Professional Ethics and Professionalism in Neuroscience

Late this morning, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues (Bioethics Commission) invited three speakers to provide their insights on the importance of professional ethics and professionalism in neuroscience research. The speakers included Nicholas Steneck, Ph.D., Director of the Research Ethics and Integrity Program of the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research; David E. Wright, Ph.D., Director of the Office of Research Integrity at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; and Peggy Mason, Ph.D., Chair of the Society for Neuroscience’s Ethics Committee.

Steneck opened the session noting that scientists sometimes commit plagiarism or fabricate or manipulate data, among other things. These violations can have major consequences in the real world, especially when they come from fields with findings that are used to devise new drugs, medical techniques, or technologies. Wright said that research misconduct “appears to be mostly the same across disciplines regardless of a field’s maturity.” The panelists expressed concern that neuroscience, as a field that is both emerging and has the potential for significant biomedical applications, may be more prone to ethical misconduct in some ways, including high competition among researchers and journal editors’ lack of familiarity with novel research methods. At the same time, members of the scientific community may be more aware of the potential for these problems and may pay closer attention to identify ethical misconduct.

Mason noted that scientists can face significant challenges in maintaining ethical standards. In addition to facing overwhelming schedules filled with research and grant writing, many scientists also may have “great fear and panic of the thought of being accused of an ethics violation,” she said. And within individual scientific disciplines such as neuroscience that have close-knit communities, scientists may be reluctant to get their colleagues in trouble. Although the Society for Neuroscience can reprimand scientists for ethical misconduct, Mason wondered whether the scientific community should work to take a less adversarial tone toward accused scientists. Rather than simply punishing these scientists, the scientific community might try to work toward educating them in an attempt to turn them into advocates of sound, ethical science, Mason said.

Wright noted the value of better training for scientists as a way to cut ethical misconduct by researchers. However, both Mason and Steneck mentioned that many current training programs for responsible conduct of research receive little funding. In addition, speakers led discussion about the conflict of interest faced by institutions that may have a substantial financial interest in particular research.

“You’ve given us the backdrop, if you will, for what we’ve been talking about,” namely the issue of integrating ethics into scientific training, said Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., President of the University of Pennsylvania and the Chair of the Bioethics Commission. As Bioethics Commission members noted earlier today, ethical issues such as professionalism in research occur across scientific disciplines. These issues however, could become heightened in the public discourse in neuroscience, a field that probes the essence of what makes people who they are, and one that seeks to understand and better treat neurological problems.

Next up, the Commission will discuss the ethics of communication about neuroscience research by journalists and scientists.

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This is a space for the members and staff of the 2009 -2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

As of January 15th, 2017 this blog will no longer be updated but continues to be available as an archive of the work of the 2009-2017 Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

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