Naive reporters and textbook writers sometimes portray science as some kind of neutral, bias-free activity in which the “truth” about nature emerges on its own, as long as the scientist in the lily-white lab coat follows some kind of “scientific method.”  Philosophers, theologians, ethicists and scientists with a background in any of these fields know better.  One has to believe that truth about nature exists in order to seek for it.  And one has to seek for it honestly.  Many more examples of science’s ties to ethics or “moral philosophy” can be found, as a few recent articles show.

  1. Scientific integrity:  What is integrity, if not an ethical term describing human character seeking the ideals of honesty and openness?  In a letter to Nature last week (Nature 477, 22 September 2011, p. 407, doi:10.1038/477407d), Alfred P. Zarb advised fellow scientists to “Make integrity key to recruitment” in an effort to combat scientific misconduct.  “Far from being a vague ideal, the complex and sensitive issue of maintaining integrity in science is a critical imperative,” he said.  “In my view, it would help to demand and monitor integrity in scientists and managers from the outset” – when hiring.  “Most researchers know from their training that honesty is fundamental to scientific integrity,” he continued, “But some managers and agency officials can find themselves in difficult situations” that tempt them to cheat or compromise.  “The only way to achieve scientific integrity across the board is to ensure that personal and professional values (as well as knowledge and skills) are primary criteria for the employment of both scientists and managers.”  For his idealism he got some nasty digs by peers.  One said, “This is a recipe for the establishment of a scientific Gestapo”; another, “Just forget it – not possible in current scenario.”  Even so, the critics were not denying the need for integrity, just Zarb’s method for achieving it.
  2. Damage of misconduct:  The Hwang scandal of 2006 left South Korea’s stem cell research in tatters.  PhysOrg reported that “President Lee Myung-Bak promised Monday to spend some $89 million restoring South Korea’s reputation as a leader in stem cell research, five years after a scandal tarnished its reputation.”  Though the short article did not mention it, one can only hope that part of the funding will go to training research scientists in professional ethics, lest another Hwang is hwaiting in the hwings….

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