ScienceBlogling Dr. Isis has an interesting post about the ethical obligations of junior scientists regarding animal research. Dr. Isis asks two questions:
- Does a graduate student/postdoc have a moral imperative to report non-compliant research, even in the face of potentially risking one’s career? How does one determine the risk/benefit of such actions?
- Is there a spectrum of what is worth reporting and what is not worth reporting? If so, what tools do you use to determine the morality of reporting/not reporting the behavior.
While I’m loath to contradict the Goddess, I think this is not the way to approach the question.
From the perspective of any scientist, particularly if you’re junior, the primary questions should be “Are you breaking the law?” and “Are you violating funding agency guidelines?” Forget ethics for a moment. If you’re caught, this could be a career-ender (and the university has put a lot more money into the senior person: they’ll cut you loose first). You might not be able to apply for grants (consider this ‘highly probable’), and non-academic organizations won’t want to hire you either.
Admittedly, after eight years of Little Lord Pontchartrain, the regulatory apparatus is a little…sparse, but, if you get caught up in it, this is a level of hurt that your former advisor and sympathetic colleagues will be unable to fix. This is really no different than an administrator calling you up, and telling you that they’re only going to report half of your income, so they can pocket the FICA and Social Security taxes (no doubt, for a good cause).
You would be out of your fucking mind to do this.
So if your advisor encourages/orders you to violate IACUC-approved procedures, you need to stand up and not do this, and make sure there’s an electronic or written record of your efforts to do so (it boggles the mind that PIs would put themselves at legal and professional risk by violating IACUC procedure…). Without getting into the details, I was put in an analogous situation at a former place of employment regarding use of NIH funds, and I stood up to my boss–I know from personal experience that I’m not offering ‘risk-free’ advice. There very well could be consequences, but those you can handle, albeit with difficulty. Violation of NIH guidelines regarding animal research, you can not.
The trickier problem occurs when you have an IACUC-approved protocol that you believe is unethical. My advice to junior scientists is:
- Try to work around it if possible (i.e., switch to another project, convince the PI, if you’re a junior graduate student, switch labs, etc.).
- If that doesn’t work, grin and bear it (provided you don’t find it so disgusting that you must leave, in which you’ve made your decision about what to do already). Like it or not, the power imbalance between a PI and a dependent scientist requires a greater ethical responsibility on the part of the PI: he or she is not only responsible for his or her conduct, but for the conduct of those who report to the PI. Just do what you need to do to extract yourself from this situation as best you can, and move on.
- When you grow up and become a PI, remember this little episode and behave better.
I realize purists will be upset with this advice, but a person’s career doesn’t happen in a vacuum. A lot of people helped you get to this point (family, friends, colleagues), and you need to think long and hard about their efforts before walking away (to the possible detriment or ending of your career) because some assholes (remember, the IACUC approved this) have behaved unethically. In fact, you might want to ask them what to do.