Man leaning against a bookshelf
Man leaning against a bookshelf

Sheldon Krimsky, Leader in Science Policy and Ethics, Dies at 80

Krimsky warned strenuously about the corrupting power of money in science.

Lisa Winter
Lisa Winter

Lisa Winter became social media editor for The Scientist in 2017. In addition to her duties on social media platforms, she also pens obituaries for the website. She graduated from Arizona State University, where she studied genetics, cell, and developmental biology.

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May 19, 2022

ABOVE: Alonso Nichols/Tufts University

Ethical guidelines put in place to protect scientific integrity often struggle to keep pace with new technologies developed at breakneck speeds, especially as the nuances of policy are revealed and debated. For decades, one of the most vocal advocates for clear, consistent ethical frameworks in research was Sheldon Krimsky, who died unexpectedly on April 23 at the age of 80. 

Krimsky was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1942. According to The New York Times, his father painted houses while his mother worked as a seamstress. He remained close to home, attending Brooklyn College to earn bachelor’s degrees in physics and math, graduating in 1963. He then attended Purdue University and earned a master’s degree in physics in 1965 before getting his PhD in philosophy from Boston University in 1970. That same year, he married playwright Carolyn Boriss. After some short-lived engagements at a handful of universities, Krimsky joined the faculty of Tufts University in what’s now called the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning in 1974.

According to a 2016 interview with The Tufts Daily, the university’s student newspaper, Krimsky began to focus on ethics in the late 1970s while conducting research that was ultimately used by the federal government to show that the chemical manufacturer W.R. Grace & Co. willfully lied to the US Environmental Protection Agency for 19 years about what chemicals it released into the environment in Massachusetts. The work resulted in the company’s indictment over poisoned drinking water. A few years later, his passions were renewed as biotechnology companies experimenting with DNA began to emerge.

“Shelly never gave up hope of a better world, whether it was his work on risk perception, abuses of corporation-funded research, hormones, GMOs or DNA,” Tuft’s colleague Julian Agyeman says in the university’s obituary for Krimsky. “He was the consummate activist-advocate-scholar.”

Over the course of his career, Krimsky authored more than 235 scientific papers and 17 books, most recently Understanding DNA Ancestry, which was published in January. The book explores the history and science of the $1 billion DNA ancestry industry, as well as the lack of an ethical framework regarding the data’s use and privacy. His other works have similarly examined scientific work corrupted by private funding, undisclosed conflicts of interest, research misconduct, and more.

Though steadfast in his beliefs of clear ethical guideposts, he recognized that the scientific process isn’t always straightforward.

“Conscious fabrication of results, cooking of data, and things of that sort are pretty easy to find,” Krimsky told The Scientist in 2004. "But there are times when research results cannot be replicated, not because there was any misconduct but because we don't yet understand all the elements in play."

Throughout the years, he was a visiting scholar at different New York universities, including his alma mater Brooklyn College, New York University, Columbia University, and the New School.

In 2017, Krimsky’s input was integral to updating the conflict of interest policy for the National Academy of Sciences. Over the years, he worked with numerous scientific journals and research organizations to create open ethical guidelines.

According to another obituary, he enjoyed improvising on his guitar and harmonica, often playing with friends. Krimsky is survived by his wife, two children, three grandchildren, and a brother. Following his death, the family created The Sheldon Krimsky Fund for Environmental Ethics and Values to continue building on his life’s work.