Letter to the Editors

The editors of the American Journal of Bioethics have a weblog, as anyone who has looked through my blogroll will know. Pace Mark Kleiman1, bioethics is a vital field in all senses of the word. I take issue, however, with a recent comment by regular guest bloggers David Magnus and Arthur Kaplan — a comment made not on the blog but in a newspaper column, and reprinted on the blog. If you haven’t been following the Korean stem cell fiasco, this is an excellent primer.

Sirs —
in a recent opinion piece to which you linked in your blog, your colleagues David Magnus and Arthur Kaplan make the following comment:

When trust breaks down, the very possibility of science is threatened. That is why so much time is spent these days emphasizing to young scientists the importance of integrity.

I want to ask: emphasized by whom? Where? At no institute or school in which I have worked or studied (six, in two different countries) has ethics been more than an afterthought, a five-minute intranet “test” tacked on to requirements to satisfy the pesterers on the IRB. I have had mentors of great personal integrity, from whom I have learned, I hope, to conduct my own research in a manner deserving of the trust Magnus and Kaplan speak of; but I have also seen PIs work drunk and skirt the edges of data fabrication on a more or less routine basis. Martinson et al. held no surprises for me, as I am sure it did not for you or for Magnus and Kaplan. Science is just as “high-pressure, high-stakes and highly competitive” elsewhere as it is in Korea, and we can expect more scandals unless, as Magnus and Kaplan themselves put it, “training in ethical standards [is] seen as central to the enterprise of science, rather than burdensome make-work.” To do this will indeed entail spending a great deal of time emphasizing to young scientists the importance of integrity. I would rather that high-profile ethicists such as Magnus and Kaplan not give the impression that this work is underway when, in my experience, it has barely begun across much of the scientific community.

1 The comments on bioethics in this entry were uninformed, ill-mannered and, it must be added, uncharacteristic. Despite being called on it by hilzoy, I have yet to see Mr Kleiman attempt to justify his hostility. I got a server error trying to ping his entry, so I’ve emailed him.