What has ethics got to do with research?

- K.P. Kochhar, M.D., Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Physiology, A.I.I.M.S., New Delhi, India

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 9 (1999), 163-4.
The romance of research beckons a young human mind but the constraints and problems associated with research, pursuit and practice dampen the enthusiasm of many. Going about research is no less agonizing and no less ecstatic than a pilgrim's progress. All research including research in biomedical disciplines is part of the great humanistic enterprise continued for more than two thousand five hundred years. Now we want to learn more about our place in the universe. The concept of progress in science is acceptable if it is conceived as an incremental understanding of our physical universe. Scientific understanding based on the experimental method has a history of only three hundred years. Indeed it is the earliest stone age technology that initiated our present degree or mastery over physical events. But often the advance is a matter of serendipity (or better what Louis Pasteur called "the prepared mind") which makes unpredictable manifold utility. One of the immortals of the science of human physiology Claude Bernard, the French pioneering physiologist, advocated a reinforcing relationship between basic and applied research and combined in his person, scientific excellence with human concern and grace or humility with candor of limitations.

Why research?

Is research the prime motivator of a scientist or has it become a distraction? It is part of teaching and administrative responsibilities or is it a basic drive and urge to seek knowledge. Is it mere occupational therapy for staff or that which is really intended?

What has ethics got to do with research?

Science is ethically neutral. Whatever else the world may need it does not need second rate scientists. We should focus less on production of Ph.D. s and more on production of scientists. They are not necessarily the same thing.

Does the research environment lead to erosion of social ethics? Does it turn brilliant A-grade holders into dried up technocrats who grab the test tube and data spread sheets with not a thought for ethics the love of life. We cannot escape the fact that our research environment is ailing and polluted, ridded with conflicts of thought, word and action.

Goals of Research

The goal of research is to develop relevant instruments of change for betterment of society. The products of research result in immediate and sustainable influences on our thought and attitudes. Biomedical research in an era of increased accountability needs to have a blend and balance of the wish list of the investigators, the need list of the administrators and the want list of public or whom we perpetrate our findings to. The prime movers of research drive are in order of priority: self- actualization followed by feeling of self-esteem or individual ego, followed by concern for societal needs and also need for personal economic and emotional security. At the last comes the actual scientific urge that drives a research scientist. Thus we see these priorities lead to acute pervasive and intractable dilemmas in researchers.

At home and abroad, in developed as well as developing countries we are going through an agonized reappraisal. A true research centre is a collection of ideas openly expressed, freely exchanged and scientifically validated. Our country has had a rich intellectual heritage since the dawn of civilization. Research wedded to ethics is what makes a science more than a mere technical skill. It is naive to believe that practical and selfish considerations, such a salary and promotion opportunities and quality of life do not influence a person's choice on a research career. Unquestionably a tinge of idealism also exists and one drawing force of young graduates to the stream of research activities is the possibility of doing something of major benefit to mankind as a whole.

In general young academics do have an above average degree of social consciousness. Sir Macfarlane Burnett, renowned immunologist, had written that recognition of achievement is an important and necessary to an individual as the basic needs of food, shelter, security and affection. Peer group recognition and approval is a recognized factor in social hierarchies. For an industrial magnate it is the size of his fortune of his industrial empire, for an executive in is his salary cum status, for an artist it is the size and faithfulness of his clientele or audience but when we come to biomedical research the lines are more blurred. Indeed it is the size of a research lab, staff or equipment, contacts in the echelons of bureaucracy, or the funding one gets, that matter, and many a time it is the Goddess of wealth (Lakshmi(c) which has an equal "in not more share in a research worker prestige than his intellect" (Saraswati). Researchers are neither more not less selfish than any other group of intelligent creative people.

A Pilgrim's Progress

Both the people of science and the people of art always live at the edge of mystery surrounded by it. Many gifted young people are attracted by the romance attached to a research career but have little actual knowledge of the nature or eventual career outlets of steps up the ladder. The key objective of my paper is to address desirable directions and dimensions for those contemplating a research career or those bearing responsibilities for others contemplating this possibility.

Gurukuls to Governing Bodies

The guides and supervisors need to have both credentials as well as credibility. They have a long period of interaction when they observe the capabilities of a candidate and act as a role model. It is an accepted fact of modern times that the learning campus has shifted emphasis from Gurukuls to governing bodies. The microethics of confidentiality of research findings, the mesoethics of interaction with research instruments living as well as non-living and the macroethics that investment in a research project is commensurate with our actual requirement all need to be integrated in a synthetic whole. Few fields of decision making are as complex and uncertain as the prospective assessment of human ability and creativity.

Resistance to Change

One problem in universities is the attitudinal matrix or discipline based departments in which research takes place. This induces critical elements and local institutional sub-cultural influences. There needs to be a soul searching here and the conflict between a good person or a good research worker should be equably resolved.

Salami Science and Safari Science

Redundancy and disaggregation of date should be dispensed with. One should have publications but not duplicitous publicity according to a personal or corporate agenda. Also there are issues of gratuitous or ghost authorship of papers. Can Science be just like a safari-ride or episodic sabbaticals of plane hopping? International cooperation should be sustained and not the come today gone tomorrow type of safari research. Actual legitimate credits should be accorded. The Snow rating and news worthiness of popular scientific articles also need to be judiciously and equitably looked into.
Table 1: The Right Choices for Research

Quantity vs. Quality

Maxima vs. Optima

Gown vs. Town

Tradition vs. Technology

Oversold vs. Undersold

Hierarchy vs. Heterarchy

Instant solutions vs. Proper time scale]

Undisciplinary vs. Multidisciplinary

Tactical vs. Strategic

Ethics of doing research vs. Ethics of not doing research

Caring vs. Curing
What is the right choice?

We have to make diverse choices in research (Table 1). We also need to ponder over the ethics of doing research versus the ethics of not doing research. We need to address issues of quantity versus quality and optimal versus maximal. What should be the developed/developing, north/south, rural/urban divide. The 'gown' should consider the needs of the 'town'. Similarly tradition has to hold on, against the onslaught of technology. This needs an integration of a bottom and top-down as well as bottom-up approach. As far as research is concerned we are students all our life, seeking solutions for life's problems. Knowledge is not static. Research or search for new knowledge enables sustained intellectual development all our lives and ensures free and unfettered progress or knowledge or both experiential as well as experimental basis. India has the second largest scientific manpower is the world and is also the largest exporter thereof. Indians need to do some urgent soul searching to retain our intellectual assets and give them a conducive as well as lucrative environment to harbinger better quality research in tune with our ethos and interests in the next century.

Go to commentary by Jayapaul Azariah
Go back to EJAIB 9(6) November 1999
Go back to EJAIB
The Eubios Ethics Institute is on the world wide web of Internet: