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Monday, December 27, 2010

Ethics of Scientific Research - Final Exam Question 2

This was my answer to question #2 of the Ethics of Scientific Research Philosophy Class from Autumn Quarter 2009

What is the role of competition in scientific research? How does competition help research? How does competition hinder research? Discuss the effects of competition on the Human Genome Project and/or the events surrounding Rosalind Franklin and Photo 51.

Competition’s role in scientific research was clearly demonstrated in the Human Genome Project. In fact, many of the last century’s technological and scientific triumphs, from the development of nuclear energy (and weapons), the technological development of high speed, commercial air travel, the development of manned space flight leading to the landing on the moon by humans, and to the development of the personal computer, were positively driven by competition. Competition is a fact of life due to the limitation of resources and due to the human desire for recognition. Competition ultimately helps scientific research; however, competition also exposes the dark nature of humanity and in some instances actually hinders scientific research.

Resources are scarce. This single fact drives a race to gain a portion of those resources for one’s own use. This race, this competition, motivates individuals to work faster, to conserve resources and prevent waste. Competition drives individuals to form coalitions, to pool resources and efforts , to gather the best minds together to solve problems. Competition inspires dedication, innovation and the search for better ideas. The role of competition in scientific research is encompassed by the entire aforementioned elements. The nature of the competition could be between academic groups, between commercial groups, between public and private groups or between governments and/or nation states.

On large scale efforts that take man-years to finish can be accomplished quicker with pooled resources and efforts spurred by competition. Even on small scale projects, innovation and new ideas are spurred by competition. During the Second World War, the fatal competition between the Allies and Axis powers led to a perceived race to the development of the atomic bomb by the Manhattan Project. In a few short years, the dedication and innovation of the researchers led to advances in the knowledge of nuclear devices and in the subsidiary technologies involved in deploying those weapons. Regardless of the morality of nuclear weapons, the research involved was positively helped by the perceived competition. The less fatal competition between the Soviet Union and the United States led to the development of heavy launch vehicles that sent humans to outer space and to the surface of the moon. Those also led to the fantastic journeys of unmanned robotic probes to all of the planets of our solar system, all within 40 years of the first flight into orbit. Competition in this case was also positively helped by the competition.

Science is hindered by the breakdown of trust, by lack of communication, and by neglecting moral obligations. The ugly side of human nature is exposed in some competitions, and can hinder scientific research. The race to be first may tempt some to falsify data, steal data, plagiarize results, and to perpetuate outright fraud. This leads to the breakdown of trust necessary to the exchange and use of ideas in science. It also leads to problems with public acceptance and support of research. One case in point is the outright fraud surrounding Piltdown man. Despite the exposure of the fraud by scientific researchers employing better scientific techniques, the fraud instilled a distrust of evolutionary biology in the less educated segments of the general public that persists to this day.

Competition may lead some to withhold data and block the free flow of ideas. Science depends on the honest and free flow of information between investigators through both informal means and through peer reviewed publications. Competition may also tempt some to violate moral principles, such as the principle of inherent human dignity and worth, non-malfeasance, autonomy, beneficence and justice. The temptation to use people as mere means to an end may also be manifested. These failures of moral obligations also hinder scientific research through the breakdown of trust between researchers and between researchers and the public.

The Human Genome Project demonstrates many of the positive aspects of competition helping scientific research. The entrance of Craig Venter into the race to sequence the human genome spurred technological advances and innovation that ultimately led to the entire project being completed under budget and ahead of schedule. The rapid dissemination of ideas and data on the public portion of the project helped other members of the public portion as well as the private portion. Many public institutions got involved to ‘beat’ the private venture led by Venter. Advances in computer analysis and automation driven by Venter’s ideas and public institutional spending sped the completion of the project. Venter’s motivation was primarily commercial in nature, evidenced by his lucrative lifestyle and interests, but there also appears to be an element of pure scientific motives. As such, there was some hoarding of data to protect Venter’s company’s interests, but overall the competition helped this research project.

The discovery of the structure of DNA, while publicly attributed to Watson and Crick, is surrounded by events that serve as an example of the negative aspects of scientific competition. Rosalind Franklin’s work in crystallography and the images she took of DNA were essential in the discovery of its double helix nature. She had provided critical reviews of previous attempts to determine the structure of DNA and was a leader in the field of molecular structure determination. However, the conflict of interests of her supervisors and peers led to the outright plagiarism and theft of her work.

Her peers, Maurice Wilkin being one, were involved in the suspicious transfer of the critical DNA image, Photo 51, to Watson and Crick without her approval or knowledge. Wilkins appeared to have several conflicts of interest in his dealings with Ms. Franklin, one of which was that he was a personal friend of Dr. Crick. Her supervisor, the head of her department at Kings College in London, colluded with the head of Watson and Crick’s lab to ensure a favorable publication in Nature for Watson, Crick and Wilkins. In essence, Rosalind Franklin was used as a mere means to an end, a violation of a basic moral principle.

Competition hindered scientific research in this case due to moral failings of the principals involved. Even though in the end, the structure of DNA was discovered by these efforts, research may have proceeded at a better pace if all of the participants were aware that they were involved in a competition. Rosalind Franklin appears to not have been aware of the competition. If she had been asked to collaborate, she may not have concentrated on the ‘A’ form of DNA, while only giving a cursory effort on the ‘B’ form that ultimately provided the key clues to the molecular structure of DNA. She could have advanced the research by several months if not years if she had been more fully involved. In the end, her significant and vital contributions were ignored and forgotten by the public at large.

Competition is a prime driver of human innovation made necessary by the limitation of resources. And even though competition may expose the dark nature of humanity and tempt many into failing their moral obligations, it is extremely helpful in scientific research, and in general it helps more than it hinders.

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