So you call yourself a scientist?

A personal reflection on confronting the ethics failures of scientists

The manipulation of scientific research that is designed to support a political or financial goals is increasingly becoming a headline issue. Underlying the headlines is the realization that we have an embarrassing and harmful ethics crisis within the scientific community.

I grew up in a scientifically focused community and pursued a duel formal education in the natural sciences and in business. Ironically, my graduate school grades in my microbiology minor were better than my grades in the business school. I briefly entered a career path in cancer research but then changed my mind and went into business instead. But my formal education plus my brief career exposure left its mark. They say ” a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing” and that seems to explain my current concern with the lack of  ethics in the scientific community. Over the past year I have personally been pulled into four of these situations where big money was used to manipulate research outcomes for political or financial purposes in my own community of the rural Delaware River* ecosystem. We read about many more such examples in the news on a weekly basis.

As a  CPA I have a professional duty to be direct, honest, forthright in my communication and maintain a healthy dose of professional skepticism. CPAs are required to engage in ongoing professional ethics training that is designed have us to actively support and maintain these principles. The idea is that by thinking about these issues again and again they naturally become a part of who we are as people. Yet when I look across the room to the scientific community lately I see a sad absence of these traits linked to personal integrity. I see too many instances of unregulated opportunism spurred by public and private funding sources and political interests. I see individual scientists and researchers bypassing questions about their own personal integrity with the excuse that these policy issues are decided on a higher level than themselves.  The inherent conflict of interest that requires scientists to appease their bosses and funding sources is showing ugly effects.

The problem is compounded by an ‘ivory tower attitude’ that seems to say “How dare an ordinary citizen question our research methods and results?” I find accountability to be lacking and responses to questions about professional ethics by scientists to be dismissive. It may be true that most people have not taken the time to learn enough about a topic to engage researchers in debate but that does not mean that scientists get a free pass to avoid scrutiny of their field.

As a result, I fear that much of what gets passed off on us as ‘research results’ is actually garbage.

We need to raise the awareness of ethics issues at the individual level if we hope to make any improvement in this area of crisis. Only when individuals within the scientific an research community take an internal stance of refusing to cave to political and financial pressures do we stand a chance of gaining access to true information. A lofty idea? For sure. Yet all we can do as individual citizens is to challenge the scientists within our sphere of influence that this question of ethics deserves more of their immediate contemplation.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

*Tony Novak serves as volunteer Treasurer for the Delaware River Greenway Partnership and BaySave Corporation, both nonprofit organizations focused on improving the local environment. These comments are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of either organization,


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