Ethics in science

18Jul06

BBC NEWS | UK | Magazine | The pressure to hoax

In 1885, Louis Pasteur demonstrated the effectiveness of his vaccine against rabies by inoculating a boy badly bitten by a rabid dog. It now emerges that Pasteur’s public account of that experiment was carefully drafted to obscure the fact that it violated prevailing ethical standards for the conduct of human experiments – standards that Pasteur had himself just endorsed.

Pasteur suggested that he had previously tested his vaccine on a “large number” of dogs. In fact, his laboratory notebooks reveal the patient was treated using a method that Pasteur had only recently decided to try, and that was entirely untested on animals.

Sooner or later, Hwang’s bogus stem-cell results would have come to light, when they could not be replicated. But financial incentives in the form of massive amounts of government funding are another matter. Political pressure from governments, pouring money directly into work in research areas they have set their hearts on leading, surely does have the capacity to distort even the best-established procedures.

Two thoughts here. First, Louis Pasteur was the guy that made me want to be a scientist when I was a kid. Eventually I got more interested in social science, but that’s beside the point. Even Pasteur, who serves as a symbol of the innovative scientist, understood the pressure to fudge things

Second, note the phrase political pressure. Even as a social scientist, working for government or even private agencies, I’ve felt that pressure. I’ve resisted it, but I’ve felt it.

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