Why Science Needs Strong Ethical Culture

Armen Hareyan's picture

Ethics and Science

A prim reminder not to lie, cheat or steal - that is the extent of the ethics lessons for many young scientists. The idea that such an education could have prevented scandals like the one that occurred recently in South Korea "strains credibility," said two ethicists from the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Instead of an ineffective class, what's needed to prevent scientific fraud are institutional policies that encourage ethical behavior. That means mentors who make ethics a priority and institutions that reward integrity in addition to scientific achievement, according to a policy paper by the ethicists in the Feb. 3 issue of Science.

"When rewards outweigh risks people will cut corners," said David Magnus, PhD, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics. He co-wrote the paper with Mildred Cho, PhD, associate director of the center.

The paper notes that in South Korea the rewards for publishing high-profile stem cell research far outweighed the risks. According to Magnus, that emphasis encouraged the researchers to fabricate data. "They created a star system rather than a community," he said.


The South Korean researchers, led by Hwang Woo Suk, DVM, PhD, published a now-discredited paper in 2004 purporting to have created the first line of human embryonic stem cells from a cloned embryo. In 2005 the group published a follow-up paper in which they claimed to have created additional stem cell lines using considerably fewer human eggs than with the method in the previous paper. These advances, if true, would have laid the groundwork for making genetically matched stem cells for human therapies. Both papers were recently withdrawn from Science.

Hwang was given more than $65 million by the government for an institute that he oversaw. "He was under huge pressure to succeed at all costs," Magnus said. "The government gave him money and told him that the country was depending on him."

In addition to intense pressure to succeed, the culture within the institute was hierarchical rather than collaborative, preventing lower-ranking researchers from knowing how the research was being conducted or feeling comfortable speaking up.

When results weren't turning out as expected and when the group ran low on human eggs, Hwang and other lead researchers twisted the arms of their collaborators and subordinates to overcome those hurdles. Without such pressure to succeed, Magnus said the researchers might have taken ethical approaches to their problems.

One source of the problem, Magnus and Cho argued, was that South Koreans did a poor job educating scientists about basic ethical conduct. One study found that 42 percent of biotechnology researchers in South Korea - including Hwang - didn't know about the review boards that are commonly in place in institutions to consider the ethics of human research before the projects commence.

In laboratories throughout the world, the authors wrote, creating a culture that encourages ethical behavior is the only way to protect against researchers cutting corners. Magnus and Cho put responsibility for creating such a culture on the institutions themselves. This includes encouraging mentors to teach ethical standards to their students and incorporating ethicists into laboratory decisions. With the proper environment, the authors argue that young scientists will mimic their mentors and propagate ethical behavior.