Engaging Scientists in Ethics

Pelumi Obasaju , first year neuroscience PhD candidate

Pelumi Obasaju is a neuroscience PhD candidate with the Midlands Integrative Biosciences Training Partnership (MIBTP). This summer from July-September, she spent three months with the Human Brain Project (HBP) Ethics Support Team at De Montfort University (Leicester, UK) as part of a non-laboratory work experience element of training known as PIPS – Professional Internships for PhD Students. She reflects on her time with the team and explores the topic of how to better engage scientists in ethics dialogue.

Pelumi Obasaju

When you think of ethics what comes to mind?

My mind immediately goes to long philosophical discussions on the possible impact an action can have. You probably had something else come to mind. I have learned that the perception of ethics often depends on your introduction to ethical principles, your cultural values and beliefs.

According to the Oxford dictionary, ethics is defined as the moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity; the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles.

From my experience, ethics in science education is usually (if taught at all) modularised as something separate and at times, that last line or final thought at the end of the module that you may not get to at all or discuss in detail due to time constraints. This implicitly teaches students that the issue of ethics only needs to be addressed when we feel like addressing them. That ethics is separate, an afterthought.

As scientists, of course, we do reflect on the impact research could have, but does this truly and fully engage ethical considerations? Yes, at earlier stages of education we are taught to recognise the symbols on chemical bottles so we are not a hazard to ourselves and the environment. Yes, we discuss societal perceptions of IVF, GM crops, stem cell research, euthanasia etc.

Some of these make their way into scientific education but when truly reflecting on this, I am beginning to think that our engagement with ethics should be more than the tick-box mentality we develop.  Ethics should be more than a box we need to tick for the purposes of getting funding or getting our research published. Can our engagement with ethics be made more integrative? 

While the relationship between science and society continues to grow, scientists and future scientists continue to see discussions on ethics as separate from scientific development. 

I took to academic twitter, and posed a purposely open-ended question to gauge people’s views on what ethics is, especially relating to their respective fields:

I chose Twitter as it is quick and a conversational style can be easily adopted which encourages engagement, also answers can be explored further within replies. Although 77% of the 66 respondents answered no, further exploration into the replies and conversations revealed something quite key and interesting. I am going to focus on the two most obvious themes that arose amongst the majority of the global respondents.

Education and Training 

An individual scientist’s educational journey and scientific training often reflects if they have engaged with ethics or not. Personally, the majority of my ethics training stems from secondary school religious education and philosophy classes. During further education ethics, as alluded to earlier, did not get as much of the spotlight compared to more technical aspects of my scientific education. Further along the journey it has become something that is done through an online platform such as blackboard, to ensure we as researchers maintain the highest standards of rigour and integrity and to embed good practice in all aspects of work.   

It was obvious from twitter respondents that ethics is optional for most science courses. As a North American respondent, who never had ethics as part of their curriculum, indicated: it affects practice. The respondent commented that it affected data collection, where there was no consideration of the how and why of where samples were collected being completely ignored.

Another respondent commented that although they do not perceive ethics as an afterthought, it can at times ‘feel’ like an afterthought. They reflected on how they were taught and their experience now that ethics has become “more than what is on paper”. They maintained that education on what ethics is and how it should be practised is needed. 

Comments on a discourse-oriented approach to this were also made. The HBP Ethics Support team have highlighted in papers and discussions the importance of a dialogical approach to ethics, which has opened my eyes to a method of incorporating reflection upon ethical issues  in the research process.

A few respondents held the sentiment that ethics courses or even humanities electives should be mandatory, as scientists are often discouraged from seeking these non-scientific electives. Attitudes held about ethics can at times be one of a subject that is visited when we want to talk about things that do not have rules yet or are not already controlled by others.

Motivation

During my time at HBP Ethics Support, I have been privileged to sit in on some interesting discussions revolving around topics including but not limited to research ethics, data governance and compliance. Something that has cropped up a few times is this idea of being ethical beyond legal compliance.

This legal compliance-based ethics is usually centred on moral principles judged solely on the consequences of an action. In contrast to another viewpoint that the morality of an action should be based on if it is right or wrong under a series of rules, rather than just the consequence.

It is interesting to note that amongst respondents that did not view ethics as an afterthought there was a common thread of actions being judged solely by their consequences. Responses included comments such as “The rights of the participants in research have to be protected. The researcher also has to be ‘protected’. Ethics clearance ensures these.” The protection of research participants is a moral principle rooted in right or wrong under a series of rules. When further explored, these responses stemmed from a motivation rooted in regulation and the risk of funding being cut, or being sued if not done properly. This is ethics motivated by legal compliance and avoiding the consequences related to not complying.

Another respondent commented that they always thought about ethics but due to the data set/samples they handled being “from big studies”, a third party dealt with the ethics. There is almost this ‘ethical black box’, where someone else, if not the researcher, will sort out the necessary paperwork.

There is also the factor of novel, cutting edge research where consequences are uncertain. To begin to delve into postulating all the possibilities eats away at valuable research time. Even when ethical consequences are postulated by scientists, depending on the audience and environment, it seems like something has been missed out and there is always more to consider. 

Ethics procedures are often perceived as an administrative burden. This perception shifts attention away from the main purpose of ethics. The main purpose of ethics and specifically research ethics is the protection of the research subject and consideration of possible consequences.

So how can scientists be more engaged in ethics?

Due to the international nature of scientific research, ethics across cultures is a factor at play. A respondent commented that cultural “differences play a big role” and “it’s hard to know how to navigate them at times”. Ethical compliance varies from country to country and is dependent on the regulations and social values in place.

I don’t think there is one answer to how scientists can be more engaged in ethics. Some may even argue that they are already engaged enough as different scientific disciplines raise different ethical concerns.

In my opinion, the modularised nature of ethics in science education implicitly communicates that technical competencies are separate from social, political and ideological principles. On one level I believe that ethics in science education needs to move away from a modularised teaching style to something more integrative and dialogical. The science curriculum is variable not only from country to country but also on an international level, so as an integrative style is adopted the incorporation of ethics into all science curriculum is needed.

On another level, continued education throughout one’s scientific career is needed and the method of dissemination is key to the effectiveness of this. Opening up the conversation and challenging thinking around ethics, to encourage and get scientists thinking ethically beyond legal compliance should be a focus.

Engaging resources that go straight-to-the-point would be a great start. This would include resources such as videos and webinars that are visually stimulating and account for different learning styles. Tailored team-based learning exercises can and have proved effective in a discourse-oriented approach.

Ethics is a verb that asks people to slow down, which at times scientists don’t want to do. In opening up the conversation around ethics it is key to lay a solid foundation re-focusing on the purpose of ethics. Understanding the “why” of ethics equips people to understand the “how” in effectively implementing ethical principles. 

Reference:

Stahl BC, Akintoye S, Fothergill BT, Guerrero M, Knight W and Ulnicane I (2019) Beyond Research Ethics: Dialogues in Neuro-ICT Research. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 13:105. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00105

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