Scientists found to resort to self-censorship to avoid backlash
By Julie Bell
The Baltimore Sun
Microbiologist Eckard Wimmer never conducted the next big experiment he had planned, not after the public drubbing he took in 2002 when he reported building a live polio virus from scratch.
A firestorm erupted over the ethics of making the pathogen, and Wimmer – although convinced that the experiment and its publication in the journal Science were ethical – decided he didn’t want to go through anything like it again.
Today, another paper in the same prestigious journal raises questions about how common it is for researchers to do what Wimmer did: censor their own work to avoid controversy.
The answer has serious implications for scientific research and whether it is widely biased by the fear of backlash.
Citizens and interest groups can influence the debate about a proposed ban on human cloning by contacting their legislators.
But a worried researcher’s decision to avoid an experiment or leave controversial data unpublished can affect the outcome of science without a word of public debate, the authors say.
“The problem is, we don’t know what’s being censored and why,” said Jon Merz, an assistant medical ethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of the study.
Co-author Joanna Kempner, a sociologist and University of Michigan research fellow, added that
“controversy may be shaping scientific agendas.”
The paper’s findings are based on 10 pilot interviews and 41 in-depth interviews with researchers from prestigious U.S. academic departments in seven fields – neuroscience, sociology, molecular and cellular biology, genetics, industrial psychology, drug and alcohol abuse, and computer science.
About 42 percent described how their work had been targeted for public censure in one form or another, the paper said.
But the authors were surprised to find that scientists were most affected by so-called “informal constraints,” such as the fear of breaching an unspoken rule against inquiry in a particular area.
The paper avoids specifics to protect the identities of those interviewed, and the limited sample means findings can’t be generalized.
But Merz and Kempner said in interviews that a number of the scientists they surveyed avoided topics considered politically incorrect, such as those – like the controversial book “The Bell Curve” – that explore race and intelligence.
Others said they have given up experiments on dogs – traditional objects of medical research – to avoid the wrath of animal rights activists.
And a psychologist told the authors he quashed his own idea for a study of “subtle cues” that may be misinterpreted as sexual harassment, fearing it would be too controversial.
The paper’s release comes amid criticism of Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, who riled scientists and women’s rights groups in January with comments that some viewed as an endorsement of research into the innate differences between the sexes to explain why fewer women have succeeded in math and science than men. He has since apologized.
Though not based on a particular study, Summers’ experience exemplifies the controversy that can result when academics cross an “unspoken” line – as well as the beneficial debate that follows when their ideas are subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny, Kempner said.
Kempner conducted audiotaped interviews in 2002 and 2003, a period marked by controversies over published or publicly funded research.
During that period, for example, the National Institutes of Health reviewed more than 200 scientific projects reportedly targeted by the conservative Traditional Values Coalition.
Meanwhile, editors of research journals were scrambling to develop policies on publication of findings that conceivably could be used by bioterrorists.
The editors were reacting to criticism of Wimmer’s 2002 paper, which described how to construct poliovirus from DNA samples that can be ordered through the mail.
Wimmer, a professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, said his intent was to raise awareness.
“The time had come where somebody would have to show that viruses have to be looked at as chemicals,” he said, adding that any virus can be synthesized if its structure is known.
Publicizing that issue, he said, forced society to be “aware of that and cope.”
Still, he found the experience – which included a lambasting by genomics luminary J. Craig Venter – so unappealing that he scrapped the experiment he had planned to do next.
That experiment, already funded, would have attempted to turn a similar, benign virus into polio by tweaking its genetic code.
If it had worked, Wimmer said, it might have proved how easily the related virus could naturally morph into real polio.
That would challenge the wisdom of ending polio vaccinations because the disease has been virtually eradicated here.
Uproar over controversial science is nothing new, and Merz and Kempner acknowledge it can sometimes be positive.
For example, they said, the rules of “informed consent” for human research subjects were strengthened after public backlash over controversial experiments. They included the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study in which researchers studied the untreated progression of the disease in blacks and watched them die – long after drugs to cure the disease had been discovered.
But sometimes, scientists argue, controversy can snuff an entire area of inquiry.
Stanley Milgram, for example, tricked his research subjects into believing they were part of an experiment in which they were to administer a series of increasingly strong electric shocks to another person.
The shocks were fake and the other person was an actor, but the 1960s experiments at Yale University created a furor over whether it was ethical to mislead research subjects.
Milgram found that 65 percent of his subjects were willing to give extraordinarily strong “shocks” to others, providing insight into how ordinary people obey authority even when they believe it’s harmful, said Thomas Blass, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County, psychology professor and author of a recent Milgram biography.
Today, Blass said, ethics overseers are unlikely to allow anything that involves tricking a research subject.
As a result, even though he’d like to follow up on Milgram’s work, he said he censors himself by not bothering to try.
“What distinguishes between those who obey destructive orders and those who don’t?” he asked. “We don’t know.”
Bruce Rind of Temple University is another example.
In 1998, he analyzed 59 previous studies of college students who had been sexually abused as children.
His findings challenged the conventional wisdom that such abuse always causes intense harm.
But the backlash from politicians and the media was so furious that Rind has abandoned research in the field.
“Even data that I had collected before the attacks went on hold,” Rind said in an e-mail exchange.
“The funding situation and media treatment obviously favor only research on socially sensitive issues that aims at confirming the prevailing opinion.
Researchers who don’t conform to this can pay a price.
“Real science, though, needs both attempts at confirming and at disconfirming,” he continued.
“A big problem in research, then, on socially controversial topics is self-censorship, which we do to avoid being censured.”
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