For an enterprise as secular and materialistic as science, there’s a lot of talk about morality these days.
Human subjects: This past week, Science magazine reported on a government panel that is revising the 1991 regulations on human research. Rebecca Dresser reported, “Although these concepts underlie many Common Rule provisions, insights gained since 1991 and unaddressed problems in the current oversight system point to new measures that could enhance the rule’s ethical legitimacy.” (Science, 3 August 2012: Vol. 337 no. 6094 pp. 527–528, DOI: 10.1126/science.1218323.) She used the word “moral” five times, as in the last section, “A Fundamental Moral Judgment” –
Underlying the research oversight system is a fundamental moral judgment: Human subjects have interests that should not be subordinated to the interests of the patients, researchers, industry stakeholders, and others who gain health and monetary benefits from the research enterprise. In the United States and elsewhere, allegiance to this moral judgment demands robust efforts to educate prospective research subjects, help subjects who are harmed in research, and evaluate the quality of human research proposals.
Research misconduct: In Nature, Colin Macilwain wrote that “The time is ripe to confront misconduct.” He is encouraged that some scientific institutions are beginning to take this problem seriously: “For too long, scientists’ instinctive defensiveness has produced general denial that misconduct constitutes a serious problem.” The statement suggests that scientists tend to have a moral superiority complex. Science, after all is supposed to be self-correcting; misconduct, they thought, must be rare among their ranks. “Few senior scientists now believe that,” Macilwain said. “They know that misconduct exists and that, unchecked, it can undermine public regard for science and scientists.” Some institutions have seen fraud investigations as contrary to academic freedom, but noteworthy cases of fraud are changing attitudes. “Worldwide, however, research integrity is now very much in the spotlight.” He spoke of a couple of initiatives being taken to address the issue, then ended: “Together, the studies represent a historic opportunity to deal with what is, perhaps, the single most potent threat to science’s prestige” (Nature 488, 02 Aug 2012, page 7, doi:10.1038/488007a)….
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