17 September 2009

Scientists avoid controversy

Scientists engage in a sort of self-censorship in response to various social, political and cultural pressures they perceive around them, new research suggests.


Scientists engage in a sort of self-censorship in response to various social, political and cultural pressures they perceive around them, new research suggests.

These informal restraints, which can range from holding back certain questions to not publishing findings, are more prevalent than formal constraints such as government regulations, said the authors of a report in the Feb. 11 issue of Science.

Although many have suspected that such obstacles existed, this is the first hard data on the subject.

"This is the first time there's been any type of empirical attention, other than rumour and story and mythology," said Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. Caplan was not involved in the paper, but one of his colleagues was a co-author.

Surprising results
And the results were not entirely what the researchers expected.

"The biggest surprise was that most of the constraints in this sample were not written rules about what should or shouldn't be done," said Joanna Kempner, first author of the paper and a research fellow at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. "Researchers are both being sanctioned for findings that they publish that become controversial, and they are also anticipating controversies and then conduct their research in a way that can avoid that."

"A lot of people just don't want to touch that third rail," said Thomas Boone, an assistant professor of psychology at St. John's University in New York City. Boone was not involved in the study.

And while formal rules may seem forbidding, they are at least transparent and therefore subject to political change.

Informal constraints on "forbidden knowledge," on the other hand, are insidious precisely because they are less visible. "Many people believe a university or a research establishment is the last bastion of free inquiry, but there are more than external pressures, there are internal ones, subtle ones," Caplan said.

How the research was done
To get at the heart of this subtle knowledge suppression, the authors of the paper conducted in-depth interviews with 41 scientists in the United States in the fields of neuroscience, sociology, molecular and cellular biology, genetics, industrial psychology, drug and alcohol abuse and computer science. Interviewees were asked to think about instances when they had suppressed scientific inquiry.

Examples arose in a number of controversial areas, including human cloning, embryonic stem cells, weapons, race, intelligence, sexual behaviours and addiction.

Informal vs. formal constraints
Many of the interviewees reported being more affected by informal constraints than formal constraints, and 42 percent said their own work had been targeted for censure, much in the tradition of Alfred Kinsey and his research on human sexuality.

One researcher said he was accused of "murderous behaviour" because he was unable to reveal the identity of HIV-positive individuals who had admitted to unsafe sex practices in an anonymous survey.

"It does make people a little gun shy," Boone said.

Fears of reprisal
Several researchers admitted choosing to study yeast or mice instead of dogs because of fears of reprisal from animal-rights groups. "I would like to lunatic-proof my life as much as possible," one interviewee said. Drug and alcohol researchers said they avoided studies that might result in moral outrage.

And while it's often convenient to point to a particular political or social climate as being responsible for these omissions, the pattern persists in one way or another across time and culture. "These topics of controversy are constantly changing," Kempner said. "Thirty years ago, recombinant DNA was really scary, and now it's stem cell research. Fifty years ago, researchers could carry on doing their work in a way that now would be considered harming their subjects."

A delicate balance
There was no consensus among the participants about how to balance freedom and limits, some of which, they acknowledged, were necessary.

For Kempner, the goal is to get the issue into the light. "Maybe we need to be taking a closer look at how public controversies shape what scientists do and how they decide to do it," she said. "Perhaps there are unintended effects we need to assess."

For Caplan, the paper is proof that some things are constant. "The study is a strong reminder that science is fundamentally a human endeavour, and is going to respond to human values and social pressures and cultural values no matter what you do," he said. – (HealthDayNews)


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