University of Chicago Press, 2001
Not so long ago most people recognised a priest or a pastor, even a politician, as a source of authority. This is no longer the case. All have been dislodged from the pedestal, to be replaced by a relative newcomer: the scientist. Indeed, science in many ways has now replaced religion and philosophy as the most respected source of knowledge and wisdom. Today when a scientist speaks, people listen.
This is all part of the tendency to see science as saviour, and to regard scientists as saints. Put on a white lab coat, and people assume you speak the truth. After all, science is about facts and objectivity. Right? Not necessarily. The truth is, scientists are people just like us, and as such are just as capable of shortcomings, bias, and pushing agendas. Scientists, in a word, can be bought just like anyone else. And if this new book is anything to go by, there is a lot of buying going on.
Washington investigative journalist Daniel Greenberg fills 500 pages of his recent book with stories of how science puts material concerns ahead of ethical concerns, resulting in that which is not always in the best interests of society. Indeed, ethical erosion in science, with a corresponding abdication of social responsibility, seems to be inversely related to the chase for money. For many scientists, the pursuit of money has become the primary motivation, with concern for the moral and social good largely ignored.
Science can be funded from governments, from industry, and from universities. Of course those who supply the cash flow can determine the type of research and in many respects the outcome of the research. One just has to think of the enormous budget given over to AIDS research, while other less glamorous (and politically correct) diseases go begging for funding.
The life sciences (medicine, biotechnology, pharmacology, etc.) is a good case in point. Says Greenberg, these institutions of discovery and innovation are flush with government money, venture capital, and Midas legends of scientific findings transformed into biotech share options and great personal wealth. For example, pharmaceutical firms often misrepresent and inflate scientific data for regulatory approval, and to influence physicians to prescribe their products to an unwitting public. One way to achieve this end is to duplicate publication of experimental data to give the impression of widespread scientific backing.
Ethics committees and guidelines are either missing or ineffective: Endorsements of integrity are a popular and painless pastime of science; enforcement is not, for many understandable reasons: it can scare away money, besmirch reputations, and bring on ruinous publicity and litigation.
He records one particularly nasty example of ethical failure. The University of Pennsylvania had gotten into bed with a biotech company, and with assorted acts of duplicity and conflict of interest, became a leading centre for human gene therapy. The relationship flourished, until a 19-year-old died while receiving a therapeutic gene solution. He had not been told of toxic effects in other patients, or of the death of several monkeys treated with the same solution. And only in fine print in the final paragraph of an eleven-page patient-consent form were the words found that the university and the bio-tech company and its director all had a financial interest in a successful outcome from the research involved in this study.
Greenberg offers other examples of bad ethics in human experimentation, and notes how the biomedical research community was aware of gross inadequacies in monitoring scientific experimentation and quite content to let the situation remain that way. The examples demonstrate that what is done in the name of science often seems to be above regulation, accountability and ethical review. Among the learned professions and various vocations, science alone has enshrined the principle that its practitioners are not responsible for the consequences of their acts.
And it is not just science that gets tainted with money and corporate influence, but knowledge as a whole. Greenberg recalls this revealing, if disconcerting, story:
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), an undergraduate was unable to complete a homework assignment that was closely related to work he was doing for a company because he had signed a non-disclosure agreement that prohibited him from discussing his work. Interestingly, the company that employed the student was owned by an MIT faculty member, and the instructor of the class owned a competing firm. In the end, the instructor of the course was accused of using his homework as a form of corporate espionage, and the student was given another assignment.
Thus corporate greed and the limitless pursuit of profit seem to negatively affect everyone within reach, and it is not scientific objectivity alone that suffers, but learning as well. No wonder why certain bioethical debates seem to be so one-sided. The recent stem cell debate is just one example where Big Biotech is buying its way into science and the media, regardless of the outcome for the rest of society.
And Greenberg notes how the popular press acts mainly as a puppet of science, especially biomedical research. It routinely pumps out what it is told to, without asking the hard questions it does of politicians and others. This is indeed the case with reports of scientific-medical progress. Greenberg calls this mayjournalism. Stem cells may do this. Cloning may do that. Gene therapy may deliver the goods. We are wowed by reports of potential medical breakthroughs, but they are just that: potential. However, the way the media presents them, it seems like a cure for Parkinsons disease is due next week. Thus we find a collusion between certain scientists, various industries (eg., the Biotech industry), and a gullible and/or subservient media.
And of course this collusion acts as a giant feed-back loop. Journalists need good news stories, and scientists and the corporations need people to think they are just on the verge of a major medical breakthrough, if only a bit more funding were forthcoming. The one feeds off the other, and a disease-weary public, believing that immortality is just around the corner, will go along with it. And governments also get into the act, claiming that if we over-regulate things like cloning or stem cell research, all the research will move interstate or overseas, leaving them behind. So there is a grand mingling of state, corporate and public interests taking place, making it even harder for science to claim any sort of neutrality and objectivity.
Greenberg concludes by saying that science has always had to grapple with its integrity and purity. But it seems to be getting worse: More slippages from the ideal occur as science becomes bigger, richer, more insular in its detachment from politics, more powerful in its effects on society, more money-minded, while continuously pushed by government and lured by industry into commercial deals that conflict with traditional values and social responsibilities.
If religious leaders and politicians today are subject to intense scrutiny and ethical appraisal (and rightly so), then perhaps it is time to extend the same treatment to scientists. And one place to begin is by reading this important and timely book.