The 8th annual NIEHS Ethics Day featured a fast-paced review of ethics topics in science and government. Led by NIEHS Ethics Office Director Bruce Androphy, J.D., the Dec. 15 event featured guest speakers, a roundup of the year’s ethics offenders, and required training.
NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., who welcomed attendees, drew upon guidelines issued by the Office of Government Ethics to explain employees’ responsibility for avoiding the appearance of unethical behavior.
“If a reasonable person with knowledge of the facts would question your integrity or impartiality, don’t accept [the gift],” she advised.
Emissions illustrate nuance
The ever-popular Justina Fugh, J.D., senior ethics counsel for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), shared examples from the Volkswagen (VW) emissions control scandal to highlight the nuances of determining ethical bounds.
Some EPA employees involved in the EPA’s enforcement action owned vehicles that VW engineered to bypass emissions controls. The employees ranged from a technician who hooked up cars to be tested, to a senior attorney involved in negotiating a remedy with the car maker.
Fugh’s office arrived at different judgments, depending on the connections between each employee’s role and their financial interests. One EPA employee could continue his work only by not joining the class action lawsuit. Another recused himself from the agency’s proceedings so he could receive VW’s remedy, and another was able to conduct her work responsibilities without conflict.
“Something you might not expect — the car sitting in your garage — may lead to a whole series of concerns,” Fugh warned.
Ethics and gene editing
Eric Juengst, Ph.D., director of the Center for Bioethics at the nearby University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, addressed the rapidly evolving field of gene editing. In the 1980s, in response to genetic engineering, ethicists categorized changes as either therapy, such as treating a genetic disease, or enhancement, such as selecting physical characteristics.
Now, in what Juengst described as a thorny way forward, the goal of disease prevention is coming into play. In 2015, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Math (NASEM) held an international summit on human genome editing.
One outcome was the notion that prevention falls between therapy and enhancement. “NASEM has said this report is just the beginning of the conversation,” he emphasized, explaining that they want to take it on the road to collect a broad range of viewpoints.
Sabotage may not be misconduct
Elise Smith, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow in Androphy’s office, made a surprising finding while studying misbehavior in scientific research. Her survey of more than 6,000 researchers uncovered several reports of sabotage by fellow lab members.
Some reported actions — including slowing down the research process, limiting access to equipment, and harsh peer review of papers — were not classified as misconduct under the definition used by the National Institutes of Health Office of Research Integrity.
Smith also looked into predictors to discover ways to prevent such sabotage. Conditions such as lack of autonomy, perception of injustice, and frustration with an organization appeared to contribute. “We need to find a way to disagree in an ethical manner that doesn’t push individuals to need or want to retaliate, or to sabotage another’s work,” she said.
Refresher on federal guidelines
NIEHS Bioethicist David Resnik, J.D., Ph.D., invited the audience to identify photos of 2017’s ethics baddies, as he called them. Images ranged from the journal Tumor Biology, which retracted 107 papers, to leaders at VW.
Androphy led the audience through this year’s mandatory ethics training, including an update of the ethics rules for federal employees, covering topics as diverse as gifts and conflicts of interest, to insider trading.
This was the second year that Ethics Day participation was an accepted alternative to the online course.