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Scientists must rebuild trust with research sponsors

Column/Ben Z. Stanger

(Second of two parts)

Private research institutions like MIT actually represent two universities: one which governs its own affairs, and one on which the government constantly keeps its eyes.

Many activists, including former MIT professor David Noble, have described the situation as representing a serious conflict of interest. The nature of the conflict, as he describes it, is economic: such an environment is ripe for misconduct by those who use public funds in some way which leads to commercial gain.

The conflict between public and private interests reaches a pinnacle when the possibility of misrepresentation arises. Allegations of misconduct at major universities, such as the recent inquiry involving Biology Professor David Baltimore '61, highlight the problem of dual accountability.

When these allegations are blown out of proportion, it becomes especially important for the grievance process to be clearcut and fair.

The first step in responding to grievances at any university is an internal investigation. In general, this should be enough; a responsible and presumably unbiased faculty committee should be able to determine fault and make recommendations. The public does not see it this way.

This procedure was followed in Baltimore's case, but instead of stopping after the faculty committee reached its conclusions, the case went on to receive national attention. Public representatives did not believe that MIT could adequately deal with allegations of violated public trust.

How can universities regain the faith of the public and alter the actions of the minority of professors who do abuse their position without imposing crippling restrictions?

The medical profession has had to deal with a similar loss of faith by patients. There has been a staggering increase in litigation in the past decade. As a result, physicians as well as medical schools have had to come up with ways of restoring patient faith. The outcome has been a slow return to the emphasis on the art of medicine -- the importance of building a knowing, trusting relationship between doctor and patient. Now it is science's turn to rebuild faith.

At the very least, we can ensure that the system of self-policing is as strong as possible, and not, as the public most likely suspects, a revolving door. For the system to be credible, the policy for dealing with grievances must reflect an unambiguous message that unethical actions are grounds for stern action, up to and including removal from the university.

But once it has been made clear that unethical behavior will not be tolerated, the public is only harmed when it does not trust researchers to police themselves. The damage takes the form of costly and unjustified investigations, and potential damage to the future of science.

A lot can be done preventatively by following the medical example. If fears are causing people to second-guess, then those fears must be dispelled. If falsehoods are leading to investigations, those falsehoods must be unmasked.

But these changes have to be made before disagreements erupt into major controversies. There are faculty who currently do use their MIT influence to draw business to their private consulting companies. These actions have questionable ethical implications, and should be eliminated before they cause the university harm.

More importantly, the gap between academia and the public needs desperately to be bridged. There is a significant amount of public misconception about science, and few informed people would deny that the problem is worsening. Allegations of fraud add to people's fears.

The best method for regaining the public's trust is debatable. But the National Institutes of Health, which are responsible to a large extent for the future of biological research in this country, should be leading the fight against the greatest danger to that future -- scientific ignorance.

Scientific research can be hindered greatly without good faith between research sponsors and investigators. It has become clear from recent evidence that this faith does not come easily. A major task of researchers in the future is therefore to rebuild this trust.

Since before the Age of Enlightenment, scientists have had to gain the approval of the citizens who either supported or permitted their work. This is as much a prerequisite for research as ever, although it may seem like a waste of time to the vast majority of well-intentioned researchers.

Latham, a 19th century physician, said "Faith and knowledge lean largely upon each other in the practice of medicine." His observation has surprising relevance to the practice of science in our own time.


Ben Z. Stanger '88 is a former managing editor of The Tech.


Physicians as well as medical schools have had to come up with ways of restoring patient faith. Now it is science's turn.

Once it has been made clear that unethical behavior will not be tolerated, the public is only harmed when it does not trust researchers to police themselves.