James Watson, DNA pioneer and science icon, is the most recent example in how to get it wrong as a scientist.


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This year, news broke that James Watson, one of the pioneers who helped uncover the structure of DNA, had been stripped of his honours by the laboratory he worked for due to his bigoted views.

This comes just a few years after Watson had his Nobel prize auctioned at Christie’s to make some money because these views had, in his own words, made him an ‘unperson’.

Watson claims that genetically, African people and those of African descent have lower intelligence than other groups- views he still holds on to and shares till date.

This is in addition to sexism, and statements such as ‘some Antisemitism is justified’ as well as ‘some anti-Irish feeling’.

Watson’s views are more than just the ramblings of an elderly man, they are dangerous.

His words relating intelligence to race may be heeded by many simply because of his status as a DNA pioneer.

But this is also not the first time that scientists have expressed harmful viewpoints that can have cascading negative effects, some of them with fatal consequences.

Perhaps the most widely spoken about case of unethical science in a university classroom is the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany.

Many science students may also be familiar with the research ethics principles, known as the Nuremberg Code, that were outlined as a result of these atrocities.

Some students may also have heard of the Declaration of Helsinki which guides our current medical investigations that include human (and animal) subjects.

As a postdoctoral researcher, these are all stories I’ve heard in passing over the years: through pop culture and then during training in research ethics and integrity before my PhD.

Archives have a spectrum of case studies showing the harm that can be caused in the name of science, ranging from unethical experiments being carried out on Black people to lower-middle income countries being used as testing grounds, and everything in between.

It’s also been eye-opening to realise over the years just how many discoveries were made unethically.

For instance, the case of the well-intentioned gastroenterologist and Nobel Prize winner- Professor Barry Marshall, who infected himself with Helicobacter pylori to show a link between this bacteria and ulcers.

On the other hand, Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman who was ‘immortalised’ when her cervical tissue was obtained without her consent.

Lacks’ tissue is still used in laboratories around the world till date.

The present-day consensus is that there is never a justification for research at the cost of human life.

Still, some cases with unethical methods have slipped through the cracks. And apparently some scientists still have a desire to carry out unethical experiments, believing that the end justifies the means.

This is why teaching young scientists about ethics is crucial to the development of their critical thinking pertaining to ethics in research, acknowledgement of implicit bias, and doing away with willful ignorance.

These young scientists will be the next generation’s research pioneers, and it’s our duty to ensure that their starting point is as transparent as possible, and their judgement calls are informed and nuanced. Looking to the past and confronting the harm that certain scientists have done, from micro- and macro-aggressions to large-scale genocide, along with openly discussing how not to repeat these is one way of creating a culture of responsibility amongst these scientists.

An online search will show that modules focusing on ethics in science exist in pockets.

In present times when climate change nay-sayers and staunch anti-vaccine advocates have massive followings, it’s imperative that the next generation of scientists learn not only to uphold ethics and equity in research, but also the communication of the scientific thought process. Well-designed modules on ethics in science based on global frameworks can achieve this two-fold objective.

In addition, such modules may have the added benefit of creating a culture where young scientists are more aware of everyday social justice.


About Author: Dr. Furaha Asani is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Leicester , United Kingdom.

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