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Illustration by p.theo
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“Relativity applies to physics, not ethics.” — Albert Einstein

Never have the stakes been higher in the scientific world as researchers compete for the next big breakthrough and a place in the annals of Nobel history. With so much at risk, the competition can turn ruthless.

Take the case of Hwang Woo Suk. In 2004, the Korean researcher announced he had derived embryonic stem cells from the adult cells of a patient. It would have been a seminal step in reconstructing patients’ tissues with their own cells – if it had been true. In fact, Hwang fabricated some of his work, forcing the editors of Science to retract the story they had published.

The Hwang case is an exception. Few researchers would stoop to falsifying results, though ethical breaches have also occurred in this country. Occasionally, research data is juggled – or results massaged – to produce the desired outcomes.

The situation is serious enough to warrant action by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Both have announced they will no longer award their coveted grants to research institutions without “research integrity” programs in place for graduate and undergraduate students.

San Diego State’s Division of Research Affairs offers a research ethics seminar series as part of the university’s emerging program in the responsible conduct of research. Also offered is an interdisciplinary course on ethical research principles and practices to prepare students for careers in research and as scholars.

In past seminars, students and faculty have discussed plagiarism, social responsibility, whistle-blowing and research on vulnerable populations like parolees, drug addicts and juvenile delinquents.

“This institution has a commitment to fostering an ethical research climate and upholding academic integrity,” said Camille Nebeker, director of SDSU’s Division of Research Affairs. “We are concerned about the public trust.”

The gradual erosion of public trust in business, government and, most recently, the scientific research sector is well documented. At its root are notorious public scandals that began as individual decisions to violate accepted ethical standards.

Stuart Henry, director of SDSU’s School of Public Affairs, studies the sociology of crime and why people deviate from behavioral norms. He said most people consider themselves to be law-abiding citizens even as they admit to cheating or committing fraud.

“People will find excuses and justifications to make their behavior seem acceptable in certain circumstances,” he said. “You can have all the right values in place, but if your decision-making process allows those values to be neutralized or negated, then you’re free to engage in any kind of activity.”

Henry, Nebeker and others want to integrate ethics throughout the SDSU curriculum as a dimension of history or science or engineering coursework, teaching students to apply ethical principles to real-world situations. A grounding in ethics at the undergraduate level will help students make good decisions as graduate and doctoral researchers.

Throughout the country, institutions of higher education are beginning to address public concerns about ethical breaches in the research sector. Many are taking a two-pronged approach – educating students as well as their own communities.

San Diego State is a partner with the University of California, San Diego and the University of San Diego in The Center for Ethics in Science and Technology, a local nonprofit that promotes informed policy development and ethical decision-making through education, outreach and scholarly forums.

“We’re making a real effort to improve scientific and technological literacy beyond knowledge alone so people understand the ethical implications,” said Henry, a member of the center’s executive committee. “In order to make that happen, the community has to be engaged.”

From Oct. 1-6, 2007, the center will present Neuroethics Week, the first of three annual events featuring experts in the field. This year’s forum focuses on new and proposed technologies that may allow people to “read” others’ thought processes or “predict” others’ behavior.

For more information and to register for daily events during Neuroethics Week, visit www.ethicscenter.net.

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