Ethics Post

I felt dirty reading the list of ORI updates, like looking at a list of mugshots. I was looking at what would likely be the advertised scientists’ greatest shame of their lives. It makes me wonder what chain of events led them to commit such nasty, life-altering mistakes. Did they have a concrete intention of committing fraud? Did they realize what they were doing mid-way down that path and want to turn back? Did they try to do the right thing at any point?

In considering the causality, I noticed that all five of the “featured” researchers were involved in biomedical research (Tataroglu, Neumeister, Yakkanti, Malhotra, and Potts Kant), which seems too unlikely to be pure coincidence. In fact, all five had received National Institues of Health (NIH) funding, four of five US Public Health Service (PHS) funding, and two had even specifically had National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) funding. What about this kind of research could lead to a higher incidence of ethical transgression in research?

My thoughts are almost fully speculation, but I did spend two years (one year full time) working and researching in a biomedical lab to give me some perspective of the research experience in this field. First, it is cut-throat. I’m sure everyone is aware that the road to being a medical doctor is a very competitive one. Having attended a heavily pre-med school, I saw the accuracy of future doctors’ reputations as intense and hell-bent on being the best. Personality tendencies compounded with the fact that, at least in the US, spots at medical schools are extremely limited, so competition was innate in the field. One of the guilty researchers was a medical doctor. As far as those in biomedical research but not MD’s, my anecdotal experience has been that many who went into biomedical research were originally pre-med and had similar dispositions to those who went to med school; they just instead turned their sights on the research aspect of the health field. So, I wonder if a culture of intense competition and need to prove oneself as the best has driven researchers toward cheating.

Additionally, biomedical research Takes. A long. Time. I don’t even mean years, I mean decades. This extended time span of studies is actually part of the reason I got out of that field. It sounded exhausting. It also sounded risky. What if eight years down the road you find that your pharmaceutical breakthrough will never be compatible with humans? Well then that’s it, all those years wasted. So, fear might have driven these researchers to exaggerate their findings. Also, frustration and fatigue might have driven them to give their findings a bit of a “boost” that might allow them to accelerate the slow, plodding, laborious nature often typifying such research.

Mission Statements Reflection

I was curious about whether schools reflected their mission statement values in their admissions decisions. To do so, I focused primarily on diversity and secondarily on community service. Diversity can be represented in multiple ways, including economic and racial. I first looked at economic diversity in the student body because I expect money to have more potential to distract schools from their values. The school reported to have the most economic diversity in their student body is University of California, Los Angeles.1 Interestingly, UCLA ranked second in racial diversity,2 demonstrating consistency in their commitment to diversity.

Looking at UCLA’s mission statement, it does go beyond academia by citing service as a core value. The school’s short-and-sweet version of their mission statement reads: “UCLA’s core mission can be expressed in just three words: Education, Research, Service.”3 By accepting a student body that is more diverse, they themselves are performing a service to their community and have better empowered themselves to have a broader impact on society. This value of outreach resonates in their longer-version mission statement, which begins: “UCLA’s primary purpose as a public research university is the creation, dissemination, preservation and application of knowledge for the betterment of our global society. To fulfill this mission, UCLA is committed to academic freedom in its fullest terms: We value open access to information, free and lively debate conducted with mutual respect for individuals, and freedom from intolerance. In all of our pursuits, we strive at once for excellence and diversity, recognizing that openness and inclusion produce true quality. These values underlie our three institutional responsibilities.” It is reassuring to see that their admissions process supports their drive to promote diversity, inclusion, and dissemination of education. Their extracurricular offerings and student body appear to similarly give back to society, as UCLA is ranked #8 in outreach and community service.4

The university with the least economic diversity in their student body is Washington University in St. Louis.5 One fifth of this school’s student population is from the top 1% of earners, while just 6% of their student body comes from the bottom 60% of earners in the US. Their racial diversity is not ranked as low, but amongst the top 100 schools for academics in the US, they rank a very middling 43.2 However, their mission statement also promotes diversity. Their opening sentence says: “Washington University in St. Louis’ mission is to discover and disseminate knowledge, and protect the freedom of inquiry through research, teaching and learning.”6 This statement is quite similar to UCLA’s, purporting dissemination of knowledge and freedom of learning and research too. The school also aims to “strive to enhance the lives and livelihoods of students, the people of the greater St. Louis community, the country and the world.” Additionally, their first goal is “to welcome students, faculty and staff from all backgrounds to create an inclusive community that is welcoming, nurturing and intellectually rigorous.” However, if they really were to be inclusive of their local community and beyond, their student body would need to be more representative of these populations.

Interestingly, WashU does rank very high in service opportunities and community mindedness. They ranked #11, citing specifically that students spend a high proportion of time participating in community service activities.4 Perhaps through reading personal essays or paying attention to extracurricular activities from applications, admissions committees did place high value on students with an interest in outreach. It would be less hypocritical, though, if the school offered the opportunity it presents for social mobility to students from a wider diversity of backgrounds.