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How to Be a Good Lab Partner

University program teaches importance of ethics


Jisi Tang (GRS’14, ENG’14) (from left), Assaf Kfoury, a CAS computer science professor, Susan Frey, an assistant provost, and Karina Stavitsky (GRS’12) discuss ethics in research at a Responsible Conduct of Research program session. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

In 2010, it seemed the biggest headlines in scientific research didn’t involve scientists making discoveries, but scientists embroiled in scandal. Last February, the leading British medical journal Lancet retracted a study linking vaccines to autism after finding major ethical violations by its author. In August, Harvard University found one of its star scientists guilty of misconduct in research that explored, of all things, the evolutionary origins of morality. In December, a South Korean court upheld the conviction of a disgraced cloning expert whose fabricated claims in stem-cell research had stunned the scientific world.

How can large research universities help future scientists avoid ethical pitfalls and protect the credibility of research that informs subjects from global warming to genomics? Across BU, an innovative and rapidly expanding program in research ethics is doing just that.

Now in its seventh year, the Responsible Conduct of Research program doesn’t rely on lectures or tests to teach ethics in the lab. Instead, it takes graduate students and postdocs across a wide range of disciplines—from anthropology to biochemistry to pathology to physics—and puts them around a table for four two-hour sessions to hammer out ethical dilemmas in hypothetical case studies. Since 2004, about 894 trainees have completed the ethics program.

The training, guided by faculty facilitators, is designed to explore issues that may seem basic, but in fact represent increasingly thorny problems in 21st-century research: who owns a scientist’s data? What constitutes plagiarism? When a private company sponsors research, what are the boundaries?

“The idea is really to get the participants to express themselves and engage,” says Scott Whitaker, College of Arts & Sciences associate dean for research and outreach and a professor of physics, an architect of the RCR program. “Rather than telling them, ‘Here’s the answer, these are the rules,’ it’s more about having them think, what would I do? How would I counsel somebody if they were in this situation and asked for advice?”

The more the University invests in nurturing students and faculty in research ethics, the more “they are going to be alert and better prepared to stay out of trouble, as opposed to dealing with being in trouble,” Whitaker says.

RCR was initially created to address U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and National Science Foundation requirements that graduate student research assistants and postdoctoral researchers supported by training grants receive training in the proper conduct of research. In fiscal year 2010, BU received a total of $318 million from those two federal agencies.

But RCR training has come to incorporate students who don’t receive any funding from the two agencies; the School of Engineering, for instance, requires all of its graduate students to complete the program. And as RCR grows, faculty are playing an increasingly significant role—facilitating conversations, but also brushing up on their own command of changing ethics guidelines.

“What we want to do with RCR is to build a community of research ethics across the University, across disciplines as well as up and down through the various levels of seniority,” says Susan Frey, assistant provost for research compliance and health information privacy. “And we are quite unusual in the level of collaboration between our office and the faculty from the physical, biomedical, social, and behavioral sciences.”

Daniel Remick, a School of Medicine professor and chair of pathology and laboratory medicine, is among the 134 faculty members who served as facilitators last year. He runs an active research lab studying asthma and bacterial infections. “In a busy research lab, you don’t have dedicated time to talk about ethical issues,” he says. “Every investigator will tell their graduate student, ‘Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t fabricate data.’ But having the chance to sit down and talk about these boundaries is extremely valuable.”

Surprisingly, RCR directors say, one of the biggest danger zones involves the most basic building block of research: collecting data. “The topic of data is huge, and we discuss things as simple as, if you don’t like the data you’re getting, you still have to record it,” says Elizabeth Simons, a MED professor of biochemistry. “Sometimes, when you’re doing an experiment and you don’t get the answer you were expecting, there’s an uncontrollable bias to say, ‘Something must be wrong. We didn’t pipette this right, or we’re using the wrong animal,’ and you don’t record it. But it’s dishonest not to record what you see. The data are the data are the data, and you have to record them. That’s one of the hardest things to teach students.”

In other cases, the examples in RCR training don’t boil down to questions of right and wrong, but how to collaborate well in fields where competition is intense, funding dollars are scarce, and individual achievement is rewarded above all. At a session last November, some 120 trainees, split into 15 groups, were hard-pressed to resolve a hypothetical dilemma involving four earth sciences researchers who meet at a conference and decide they want to work together on a fictional valley in the ocean floor.

The benefits of the collaboration were plain to see, but some of the groups had to abandon the idea: they couldn’t get past the obstacles presented by the characters in this particular lab drama. There was the ambitious junior professor up for promotion; the senior professor from another university whose career had stalled; the postdoc under the senior professor, whose new work was critical to the study but who felt unsupported by her mentor; and a scientist working for an oil company. Complicating matters, the hypothetical oil company involved offered to fund part or all of the study—as long as it could block the publication of any results for up to two years.

Who would be the lead researcher? Which university should submit the grant proposal? Which journal should publish the study? And the most controversial question of all, should the group take the money?

“The thing I was most surprised by was how much the discussions centered around these very gray areas of conduct,” says participant Katie Spina (CAS’04, MED’05,’15), an MD/PhD candidate doing stem cell research in the biomedical engineering program. “You can see how easy it can be to fall into a lapse of judgment or lean in a direction that isn’t quite appropriate without realizing it. And once the postdocs and faculty started speaking up, it was shocking to see how relevant some of these concerns are to everybody’s day-to-day life in the lab.”

What they want students and postdocs to take away from the program, RCR trainers say, is this: no matter where they fall in the lab hierarchy, researchers can and should address any concerns, problems, or possible wrongdoing, even if it involves a supervisor. “We try to make clear to students that there are a range of people students can talk to: the assistant dean, the dean, the director of graduate studies, the ombuds office,” Whitaker says. “If you’re not sure what to do, if you think there might be a problem, ask somebody.”

To speak confidentially with someone at BU about scientific misconduct, contact the Office of the Ombuds or email BU Ombuds Francine Montemurro at fmonte@bu.edu.

Learn more about RCR training topics and case studies here.

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