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Before we dive into the ethical issues scientists have to consider before doing an experiment, let's make sure we all understand what "ethics" means. Ethics are basically rules for behavior that make it clear what's okay to do and what's off limits.6
This may sound familiar, as there are always some rules at home or in the classroom that let us know what we can and can't get away with. And somewhere along the way we learned that kicking someone in the shins is not allowed and treating others the way we want to be treated is a good rule of thumb.
Scientists have their own set of rules, or ethics, that they stick to when they do experiments. Perhaps the most important rule that scientists follow is being honest. Since evidence is super important to making a scientific claim, scientists can't just make up their own data or "accidentally erase" data that don't support their hypothesis.
They also have to be open about any errors that occurred in their experiment, even if they're really embarrassing, like, "I tripped on my shoelace, fell onto one of the plants, and crushed it to smithereens."
And just like in school, copying another scientist's work and saying it's our own is not cool (and will get a scientist more than after-school detention). If a scientist isn't honest about their data and how they got it, then their claim can't be trusted and all of their hard work was for nothing.
The issue of honesty is pretty cut and dry and it doesn't leave much room for argument. However, not all of the ethical issues out there are so easily interpreted. Take animal research, for example. Ethically speaking, scientists should respect animal subjects and ensure that they are being taken care of properly. They should also make sure that their experiment is designed to minimize any harm to the animal and that the animal doesn't have to undergo any unnecessary testing.
Some people argue that animals can't communicate things like emotions and pain, so they should never be tested on. Other people argue that it is necessary to test on animals so we can make lives better for humans. For example, the diphtheria vaccine we know and love today was first tested on guinea pigs.7 Yes, this is why the lunch lady calls us her "guinea pigs" when she tests out that new spicy coleslaw burrito recipe on us.
Whatever a scientist's personal beliefs are, if they're experimenting on animals, they have to follow specific rules and regulations. This means getting approval from an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) before they get started. This committee makes sure that any experiments performed on animals are ethical and that any harm they may cause is outweighed by the benefits of what we would learn from the experiment.
When we bring human subjects into the experimental equation, there are even more ethical issues to consider. The first rule of thumb is to do as little harm as possible and maximize the benefits of the experiment as much as possible. Scientists also must protect the privacy and dignity of the participants in their study and ensure that the results of their research justify any impacts on their subjects.
And, of course, human test subjects need to know what they're getting themselves into before they sign on the dotted line. We call this "informed consent", which just means that the scientist has told anyone participating in their study what the study is about, how they'll be involved, and the potential effects of the study, good or bad, before the experiment begins.
Once a scientist decides they need to experiment on humans to answer their experimental question, they can't just start testing on them the next day. They've got to run their experiment by an Institutional Review Board, or IRB. This is a committee of science experts who review proposals for experiments to ensure that the human volunteers participating in the study are treated ethically and any risks are outweighed by the benefits of the study.
So who keeps scientists in check? Is there a principal dishing out detention? Not really. There are various organizations that are responsible for making sure a scientific study was conducted properly and that the results aren't from the Land of Make-Believe. The IACUCs and IRBs we mentioned before aren't the only ones looking over scientists' shoulders for any shenanigans.
For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) supervises and controls how stuff like food, medicines, and veterinary products are produced and used to ensure health and safety. Other government agencies, like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ensure their scientists are following a strict code of ethics. Universities and companies who fund scientific research may have additional review processes to make sure their scientific studies are ethical as well.
Scientists also help keep each other in check. The peer review process provides another set of expert eyes on an experiment to catch any procedural problems or data that don't make sense. If possible, scientists will repeat the experiment several times to see if they get the same results.
What happens if they can't? Sometimes there are legit reasons why we can't reproduce the results of an experiment. Every once in a while, though, it's a pretty big red flag that something shady is afoot. There's a reason why falsifying data is unethical. If only those miscreant researchers had read their Shmoop.
Why are ethics so important in science? Well, it's all about trust. The results of scientific studies aren't just there for entertainment value or to add interesting factoids to our collection of coffee table magazines. Scientists and doctors use these results to make really important decisions that can potentially affect everyone on the planet, so they need to be trustworthy.
A code of ethics ensures that scientists don't falsify data, skew an analysis in their favor, or harm their test subjects in the process, and they also give us the peace of mind that we're getting the real story and not just the fairy tale version.
Running a science experiment and running a marathon have one thing in common: they're both really hard. Scientists do everything they can to design and run the best possible study with limited time, budget, and resources, just like a marathon runner is trying to make it to the finish line on a Power Bar and a pair of Nike's. Add to that a bunch of ethical considerations that can make the perfect experiment super tricky, if not impossible, and scientists have got a lot to keep track of.
Are there shortcuts? Sure. Just like our marathon runner can hop on a bus and skip few miles of the race, our scientist might be tempted to take a quicker, less ethical route to answer their experimental question. But that line of thinking gets no sympathy, from us or the wider scientific community. Scientists can't ethically replicate an unethical experiment, which means someone broke the rules for no benefit whatsoever. And nobody wins.
Andrew Wakefield published research in 1998 that claimed that the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. When other scientists tried to verify his research but were unable to get the same results, they realized something was fishy. Later, it was found out that Wakefield changed facts about his patients and that he was being paid to create evidence against the MMR vaccine by companies that wanted to make money from a new vaccine. Wakefield was banned from practicing medicine in 2010, unfortunately not in time to prevent his "research" from causing widespread panic about vaccines, multiple measles outbreaks, and several deaths due to unvaccinated children catching the measles.8