New guidelines may help protect young whistleblowers, researchers say
By Stephen Pincock | January 10, 2006
A new ethical code which sets out the values and responsibilities of all scientists will be launched later this year, the British government said this week. The code has been welcomed by researchers who say it might help junior scientists blow the whistle on senior colleagues and serve as a basis for more specific codes of conduct.
The code, which urges scientists to act with "rigor, respect, and responsibility," was initially drafted by David King, the UK government's chief scientific advisor, together with a small working group of senior scientists. Currently, scientists are guided by ethical guidelines put in place by their own places of work or funders, such as the Wellcome Trust, but there has been no overarching statement of ethical principles for the profession.
During 2005, the government's top level advisory body, the Council for Science and Technology (CST), wrote to universities, professional bodies, funders, schools and trade unions, asking for feedback on the proposed code. The responses to that consultation exercise were published last Friday (January 6).
The government plans to officially launch the code during Britain's National Science Week, March 10-19, a spokesman for the Office of Science and Technology told The Scientist.
Without specifying details of how its aims should be achieved, the code calls for scientists to take steps to prevent corrupt practices and professional misconduct, and to declare conflicts of interest. Scientists should ensure their work is lawful and justified, and minimize any adverse effect the work may have on people, animals, and the natural environment. The code urges scientists not to knowingly mislead, or allow others to be misled, about scientific matters, and to present and review scientific evidence, theory, or interpretation honestly and accurately.
Martin Taylor, vice president of the Royal Society, Britain's national academy of science, said the code provided a good basis for producing more detailed codes of practice for specific disciplines.
"There are clear benefits in producing more detailed codes which relate explicitly to the work of a scientist in his or her specific discipline," Taylor said in a statement. "The CST code provides a useful framework within which to develop these and is a useful contribution to the debate concerning the responsibilities of scientists."
Jeanne Bell, professor of neuropathology at Western General Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland agreed that a broad ethical code for scientists would be useful as a basis to develop specific codes of practice for different fields of science.
In 2005, Bell had to tread a careful ethical line when she established a brain and tissue bank to improve the study of sudden death. "My own view is that there should be a system that does a sort of peer review, where scientists look at one another and ensure they are behaving ethically," she told The Scientist. Even with the best of intentions, she said, "it is perhaps easy for people to stray into lazy habits."
Because the code is a public statement of the values and responsibilities of scientists, "it could certainly provide a context in which a junior member of staff, for example, could 'whistle-blow' if they saw that the guiding principles were being broken," added Taylor.
But Robert Terry, senior policy advisor at the Wellcome Trust, said that the code as it stands might be too general to offer real protection to whistle-blowers. "I would say that's where you actually need something more specific and robust," he told The Scientist. "It's very, very difficult for people to blow the whistle with confidence."
Terry added that the non-specific nature of the code makes it hard to enforce, but it may help set institutions "in the right direction" if they have nothing in place. "It's probably not a bad thing, if only as a place to hang the debate about research ethics." Terry noted that the Wellcome Trust already had a more detailed set of guidelines in place, which includes advice on how to deal with allegations of misconduct.
Meanwhile, the new ethics code has been given a trial run among government scientists, who have been encouraged to implement it as part of a pilot program launched late in 2005. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, the spokesman from the Office of Science and Technology told The Scientist.
Some groups of government scientists have embraced the code more enthusiastically than others, but "there have been tremendous amounts of positive feedback from government scientists who have been integrating it into their codes of practice," he said.
Links within this article
Council for Science and Technology reportsDavid KingJeanne BellS. Pincock, "A better human tissue bill," The Scientist, 28 March, 2005.Wellcome Trust guidelines on good research practice