Ethics Day marks sixth year with presentation by Nobel laureate
By Eddy Ball
NIEHS turned out for a June 4 standing-room only Ethics Day event, which also marked the institute’s emergence as leader in government ethics (see sidebar).
The event featured a talk by Nobel Prize winner Oliver Smithies, D. Phil., on “Ethical Behavior: A Moving Target,” preceded by an overview of government ethics by moderator Bruce Androphy, J.D., head of the award-winning NIEHS Ethics Office, and an introduction by Deputy Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D.
As always, Ethics Day featured healthy doses of humor from Androphy, both in his opening remarks and during the Ethics Survivor team competition.
Challenging weak assumptions
A distinguished professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Smithies brought a fresh and often humorous perspective to his take on scientific ethics. Although he touched on familiar topics, such as the treatment of human subjects, Smithies also took an especially close look at the sins of commission and omission when communicating scientific results.
Speaking to an audience that included some of the leading and most productive scientists at NIEHS, Smithies opened with a reference to truth in advertising and a strong challenge to his audience. “We need truth in science,” he said, “[but] we don’t have it.”
Many scientists, he explained, simply exaggerate the significance of their results and craft misleading titles for their articles. According to Smithies, the bar for statistical significance is set much too low at P < 0.05, which means there is less than a 5 percent probability that the observed results were due to chance, rather than a real effect.
He criticized scientists who increase their number of subjects until they manage to meet the P < 0.05 standard, neglect to specify the exact P value achieved or the presence of negative results, or cut off experiments prematurely to maintain a deceptive statistical significance.
From sins of omission to outright theft and fraud
From that most common of scientific shell games, Smithies went on to list several more ways scientists fail to be transparent, from refusing to acknowledge earlier results from other researchers, to hiding results until the scientist can take full credit for a discovery. He pointed to Galileo’s deceptive description of his observation in 1610 that Venus circles the sun based on charting phases of the moon.
More serious behaviors, such as fabrication of results or manipulation of data, are usually easier to detect because the findings cannot be replicated, he said. Smithies also pointed to plagiarism, which can be tracked down quickly by computer programs and is easy to avoid with minimal effort.
“[Some] ethical behavior changes with time,” Smithies said, touching on the moving target aspect of ethics. He pointed to changes in public attitudes toward segregation and male dominance, as well as toward once highly controversial medical procedures that are now widespread, such as in vitro fertilization.
Smithies flavored his generalities with recent examples, as well as references to such famous scientific pioneers as Robert Koch, Louis Pasteur, and Gregor Mendel. “Humans don’t change very much [through time],” he explained. “Scientists are no better than anyone else.”
(Eddy Ball, Ph.D., is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)