Many of the most heated policy debates in bioethics hinge on the accuracy of the research -- in biology, medicine and social science. Will embryonic stem cells really cure patients? Do IVF children really thrive? Do some women really experience post-abortion trauma? So anything which affects the reliability of scientific knowledge also has a bearing on bioethics.
That’s what makes recent articles in the New York Times and in Nature so intriguing. They both assert that there is a crisis brewing over the reliability of science – not among “fundamentalists” and science sceptics, but among scientists themselves.
The New York Times highlights the belief of the editor of the journal Infection and Immunity, Ferric C. Fang, that a ten-fold increase in the number of retractions over the past ten years is a symptom of “a dysfunctional scientific climate”. And in an opinion piece in Nature, the co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, Daniel Sarewitz, speaks darkly of “alarming cracks” in the scientific edifice which are eroding public trust.
Dr Fang recently issued a call for root-and-branch reform in an eloquent editorial in his journal.
“Contemporary science has brought about technological advances and an unprecedented understanding of the natural world. However, there are signs of dysfunction in the scientific community as well as threats from diverse antiscience and political forces. Incentives in the current system place scientists under tremendous stress, discourage cooperation, encourage poor scientific practices, and deter new talent from entering the field. It is time for a discussion of how the scientific enterprise can be reformed to become more effective and robust.”
He points to familiar problems: gender imbalance, the imperative of publish or perish, cheating and blatant fraud, selective reporting of results, the race to publish first, celebrity science and so on. “The present system,” he writes, “provides … potent incentives for behaviors that are detrimental to science and scientists.”
“You can’t afford to fail, to have your hypothesis disproven,” Dr. Fang told the Times. “It’s a small minority of scientists who engage in frank misconduct. It’s a much more insidious thing that you feel compelled to put the best face on everything.”
Dr Sarewitz also calls for change to eliminate bias. “Science's internal controls on bias [are] failing, and bias and error [are] trending in the same direction — towards the pervasive over-selection and over-reporting of false positive results.” Significantly for bioethics, he says that “the cracks in the edifice are showing up first in the biomedical realm, because research results are constantly put to the practical test of improving human health”.
As both men point out, what is at stake is the credibility of science itself in the public square.
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