Ethics in Science

Henry H. Bauer


So conflicts of interest exist at all levels, institutional as well as personal, and we're in danger of forgetting how deleterious they are. One way of trying to avoid the issue is to pretend that it doesn't exist. The Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, for example, assured us (18) that "In most instances, private interest and public interest can coincide without interfering with the objective conduct of publicly funded research". If any of you are as old as I am, you might recall from forty years ago when Charles Wilson, who had been President of General Motors, was nominated to become Secretary of Defense. How would he handle the conflicts of interest, he was asked, since General Motors is a large contractor to the Defense Department? No problem, replied Wilson, "What's good for the country is good for General Motors, and what's good for General Motors is good for the country". Back then, Wilson was publicly ridiculed and featured in cartoons and comic-strips; nowadays, there's no public outcry when people say things like that.

Yet the truth about conflict of interest remains the same. No human being with conflicting loyalties or interests can always be relied on to act in the public interest, and so we do well to remove as much temptation as possible from as many people as possible. Perhaps then the pace of innovation might slow down a bit, and some people might not be able to make a lot of money in a short time; but perhaps we could also avoid some of the disgraces that have been in the news over the last decade or two, like the clinical researchers who on the side owned a company making eye ointment and who suppressed their findings that the ointment is ineffective, until they had sold the stock in their company.

Let me leave you with the thought that these issues are not other people's problems, they are our problem, they are everyone's problem. Here are a few typical ethical problems we all face:

How much time to spend preparing for teaching, or in grading lab papers or exams, when we need the same time to do our research and prepare for our own exams? How many people outside the immediate research area should be on a student's committee, to make sure that the student isn't just exploited as a "pair of hands" on a big project?

Similarly, who should have a say in drawing up and evaluating cumulative or comprehensive exams?

Should faculty with large grants be able to offer special inducements for students to work with them rather than with professors who don't have large grants? Shouldn't students be free to choose their own dissertation topics?

Faculty evaluating others for tenure or promotion; administrators deciding how to calculate overhead charges, and how to distribute money collected as overhead; program managers in funding agencies; scientists reviewing research proposals and manuscripts intended for publication - in all those situations and many others, we as individuals have to decide how much weight to give to sheer merit as opposed to other considerations like scratching one another's back. If most of us choose the ethical thing, then science will continue to prosper. If too many of us cut corners, then science can come to a dead stop.

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Version: 1.0, text updated: 5/12/1995
Send questions or comments about this essay to:
Henry H. Bauer
Professor of Chemistry & Science Studies
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0227, (540) 951-2107,