A Summary of the 1993 Sigma Xi Forum
Ethics, Values and the Promise of Science
Science Must Put Its House in Order
SAN FRANCISCOWhen it comes to ethical issues in science, the scientific community
must put its house in order or face possible outside regulation that could ultimately
impede scientific progress. This was a common theme expressed by National Research Council
(NRC) ethics panel chair Edward E. David, Jr. and other speakers at a
forum on Ethics, Values and the Promise of Science, held here February 25-26.
As David said after describing the work of the NRC panel that he chaired, "My own
addendum is that the [scientific] establishment must now move forward resolutely...
Lacking that, the scientific community's traditional self-governance [with regard to
issues of misconduct] will be increasingly in jeopardy."
"The David Report," as it has come to be called, sought to define misconduct
in science and offer a definitive response from the scientific community, in the wake of a
series of widely publicized cases of misconduct by prominent researchers. Sponsored by
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, the conference on ethics and science was
attended by more than 450 scientists and engineers from across the country, as well as
leaders from government, industry, the humanities and the media.
Together, they developed more than 20 conclusions and recommendations for the
scientific community on ethical issues, many of which placed the responsibility for
improving the public image of science on scientists themselves. The recommendations have
been distributed to Sigma Xi's approximately 100,000 members and will provide a starting
point for an ongoing interdisciplinary program on ethics and values in research under
development for the proposed Sigma Xi Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C. The forum
proceedings volume published by Sigma Xi represents a valuable addition to the field of
At the forum, talks by Nobel laureates J. Michael Bishop, Yuan
T. Lee, Steven Weinberg and Rosalyn S. Yalow
further defined ethical research principles and practices. "While we struggle to
balance the promise of science with social conflict, we must confront another challenge:
disquiet about the stewardship of science," Bishop said. "Fear, bewilderment,
disdain: these are all opponents science must best. And there is one other, which is now
One of the primary goals of the forum was to develop recommendations on actions
researchers can take to help restore what many perceive to be eroding public confidence in
science. "In the seesaw of history, a new agent has entered the equation, a weight
unlike any in the whole history of the rise and fall of the perceived value of science
itself," said Harvard University physicist and science historian Gerald
Holton. "It is the assertion that the pursuit of science is, and has been
all along, corrupt and crooked; and that consequently severe measures must be applied to
the practice of science from outside.
"A second element has been added to the generalized charge of the rotten barrel
rather than the occasional rotten apple," he continued. "The most basic fraud is
one the scientific community commits as a wholethe claim that there is any truth to
be found at all. There is nothing there to falsify."
"There can be little doubt that science is at a crossroads," said keynote
Bugliarello, president of Polytechnic University. "Old compacts between
science and the rest of society are questioned by a world that often has seen hopes for
social progress deluded in spite of science's magnificent achievements and promise."
"In the early days of scholarly science, the field was chosen as a personal career
for its intellectual rewards, like art," said Chauncey Starr,
president emeritus of the Electric Power Research Institute. "Today, science is an
institutionalized industry. However, science is not an entitlement program for scientists,
demanding society's support. The support of science should be deserved by its
contributions to our national needs, and balanced against other social goals."
Many perceive science as being somewhat aloof from the rest of society, which in itself
has fostered skepticism and mistrust. "Producing Ph.D.s is simply not the purpose of
our system of education," California Institute of Technology Vice Provost David
L. Goodstein said in a talk titled Scientific Elites and Scientific
Illiterates. "Its purpose instead is to produce citizens capable of operating a
Jeffersonian democracy, and also, if possible, of contributing to their own and to the
collective economic well-being.
"There must be a broad political consensus," Goodstein continued, "that
pure research in basic science is a common good that must be supported from the public
purse. There must also be genuine education in science, not just for the scientific elite,
but for all the citizens who must form that broad political consensus."
Several speakers expressed the view that underscoring the ethical principles and
practices upon which research should be based is necessary to bring science back into the
fold. Yet, medical ethicist Bernard Lo of the University of California at
San Francisco (USCF) pointed out that many scientists are skeptical that ethics can or
should be taught. "Only unethical persons have ethical problems. Ethics is a matter
of common sense and experience. Therefore, studying ethics isn't useful," he said,
summarizing some commonly held views in the scientific community.
Lo, who heads the UCSF Medical Ethics Program, maintained that students usually learn
more when they think the issues through for themselves, by becoming involved in case
studies that mirror ethical dilemmas they may face in their own careers.
Another facet of the conference was devoted to the peculiar plight of postdoctoral
fellows in the academic system. A panel of four postdocs from local universities talked
about the vulnerability of being neither student nor faculty, and hence totally beholden
to their professor. They said postdocs often find themselves somewhere between indentured
servitude and slavery and noted that a good professor is a mentor for life; whereas a bad
professor can destroy the postdoc's career.
Forum conclusions and recommendations covered such topics as institutional responses to
misconduct in science, definitions of misconduct, science and the media, the peer review
process, the ethics of diversity, improving mentoring, the societal responsibilities of
science, and teaching ethics. They included:
- Peer review in scientific publication should be retained because it serves science
better than any alternative system. Nevertheless, peer review has severe problems that
need to be investigated and remedied. Authors and their institutions should never be
identified to journal referees.
- Scientific misconduct is an outgrowth of mismanagement or a lack of proper supervision.
In responding to allegations of misconduct, institutions should seek to ascertain why or
how misconduct was allowed to occur.
- Significant problems exist in mentor relationships and the problems are widespread.
Major reluctance exists among mentors, their students and institutions toward addressing
- The definition of misconduct in science is designed to determine which behavior is to be
sanctionable by the scientific misconduct apparatus of federal agencies. Included in
misconduct are fabrication, falsification, plagiarism and other deliberate
misrepresentation in proposing, performing, reporting or reviewing research.
- Scientists and journalists have a mutual responsibility for accurate, open and balanced
information. Scientific issues can rapidly escalate into social, ethical and political
issues. Workshops for scientists on interacting with the media and briefings by scientists
for journalists would help increase the flow and improve the clarity of information from
scientists to journalists.
- Appropriate ethical behavior needs to be communicated to and practiced at all levels of
academic, governmental, industrial and other research organizations associated with
science and engineering. Ethics should be taught as an integral component of formal
scientific education, in cooperation with technical professionals and scholars in the
- Scientists must increase their educational efforts to convey an understanding of their
work to the lay public, to participate more directly in the political process, and to
exercise the highest ethical standards in their work.
- Women, persons of color, the physically challenged and others from diverse cultures are
inadequately represented in the community of scientists and engineers. A partial list of
barriers that prevent upward mobility includes a lack of mentoring, uneven granting of
government research funding, unequal financial remuneration and delayed advancement and
promotion. The increased inclusion [of underrepresented groups] need not, and must not,
adversely affect the high standards of excellence that characterize the modern scientific
enterprise. The scientific community must be open and receptive to new ideas and novel
approaches to science that will inevitably accompany increased diversity among scientists.
- Science must fully disclose to the public its capabilities, limitations and
participating role in solving today's social and ethical issues.
Funding for the 1993 Sigma Xi Forum was provided by Abbott Laboratories, the Bechtel
Foundation, Carolina Power & Light Company, Ciba-Geigy Corporation, Corning
Incorporated, the Electric Power Research Institute, the General Electric Foundation,
Glaxo Inc., the Johnson Foundation, the Lucille P. Markey Charitable Trust, Monsanto
Company, the Office of Naval Research, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Alfred
P. Sloan Foundation, Texaco Inc., the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency and the Weingart Foundation.
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