October 25, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Scientific Ethics: A Reader Digest

For your weekend reading, here’s a summary of news articles on various topics related to scientific integrity and ethics.


Some patients in a vegetative state retain awareness, despite being unable to move (Science Daily): Patients’ brains are observed to respond to commands to imagine actions or scenes. Dr Fernández-Espejo [U of Birmingham] says, “The ultimate aim is to use this information in targeted therapies that can drastically improve the quality of life of patients. For example, with the advances being made in assistive technology, if we can help a patient to regain even limited movement in one finger it opens up so many possibilities for communication and control of their environment.”

Where in the world could the first CRISPR baby be born? (Nature): “Around the world, scientists are gathering to discuss the promise and perils of editing the genome of a human embryo. Should it be allowed — and if so, under what circumstances?”

Major grant in limbo, NIH revisits ethics of animal-human chimeras (Science): “NIH reconsiders its rules for the kind of experiments he [a Salk Institute scientist] wants to do: mixing human stem cells into very early animal embryos and letting them develop, a strategy that could produce tissues or organs for transplantation.”

After Asilomar: Scientist-led conferences are no longer the best way to resolve debates on controversial research (Nature): The 1975 meeting of scientists to quarantine the use of recombinant gene research “is seen as the first time that science had regulated itself — effectively avoiding government intervention — and assuaged public fears by addressing biosafety concerns head-on.” That won’t work today, Nature says.

The public must speak up about gene editing – beyond embryo modification (The Conversation): You can’t trust scientists to do all the ethical heavy lifting. “It is absolutely crucial that we have an informed debate about it, consulting the public in a meaningful way, before scientists and policymakers set its parameters,” two bioethicists argue.

Stem Cells

Biological techniques: Kidney tissue grown from induced stem cells (Nature): A story pitting the performance of adult stem cells against embryonic stem cells. What to do when there is an urgent need for kidney transplant tissue?

Investigators create complex kidney structures from human stem cells derived from adults: New technique offers model for studying disease, progress toward cell therapy (Science Daily): Who needs embryos? You can convert adult skin cells into the pluripotent stem cells.

World’s first trial of stem cell therapy in the womb (New Scientist): “The stem cells come from the livers of terminated fetuses.” But is it right that one fetus should die so that another can live? Is it an excuse to think, “abortion is legal, and they were going to die anyway”? This article nonchalantly ignores those questions.

Study finds thyroid function may be restored through patient-derived human cells (Medical Xpress): A patient’s own engineered stem cells can treat hypothyroidism

Blocking differentiation is enough to give cells ‘stemness’ (PhysOrg): A new shortcut to stem cells, from research on adult stem cells.

Cardiac muscle cells as good as progenitors for heart repair (Medical Xpress): Stem cells not needed; just use cardiac muscle cells.

Environment & Ecology

Meet the Chimps That Lawyers Argue Are People (National Geographic): It’s one thing to treat animals humanely. It’s another thing to deny human exceptionalism.

Reduce elephant poaching through communal land ownership (PhysOrg): One thing is clear; the status quo is not working. Maybe if landowners have a stake in the situation, things will change. These are complex issues, but one professor who advocates ownership believes, “Encouraging and promoting land owners to adopt land use types that recognize the importance of protecting wildlife would substantially reduce poaching levels.”

S. African breeders ask court to end rhino horn trade ban (PhysOrg): Owners view rhino horn as a renewable resource that can be made sustainable, reducing the motivation for poaching that is driving African rhinoceros extinct. Free markets have a track record of solving the tragedy of the commons.

Turtles and trash (Evolution News & Views): Article shares concerns about what our plastic trash is doing to sea turtles and whales. Video clip of sea turtle suffering from plastic straw in nostril is particularly disturbing. Scientists who are ID advocates show what they are doing to protect these animals.

Global Warming

Evaporation takes place differently than previously thought: Implications for global warming (Science Daily): “The discovery has far-reaching consequences for, among others, current global climate models, where a key role is played by evaporation of the oceans.”

Climate scientist requesting federal investigation feels heat from House Republicans (Science): Politics, posturing, or search for truth and justice? Lamar Smith tries to pull racketeering law on fossil fuel companies.

The IPCC at a crossroads: Opportunities for reform (Science): Policy Forum by pro-global-warming scientists on, ” Is the IPCC doing the right things? Is the IPCC doing things right?”

Extreme weather, made by us? (Science): Global trends, yes; individual events, no. That’s been the conventional wisdom, but Andrew Solo (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) seeks to overturn the wisdom of convention.

What should we be doing about global warming? (Current Biology): Robert May (U of Oxford) reviews Sustainability for a Warming Planet, written by three distinguished economists on the alarmist side. May talks about overpopulation and global imperatives. “Not only are human numbers increasing, but our patterns of growth in economic activity — which we thoughtlessly assume will indefinitely continue — are not sustainable” summarizes his position. “In particular, the greenhouse gases generated by our burning fossil fuels is warming our planet to a worrying extent.”

Climate policy: Democracy is not an inconvenience (Nature): Nico Stehr tries to put the brakes on climate alarmists who think individual liberties must take back seat to global governance on climate policy. “There are many threats to democracy in the modern era. Not least is the risk posed by the widespread public feeling that politicians are not listening.” Ditto for the scientific community, Stehr warns.

Scientific Publishing and Education

The future of scientific publishing: let’s make sure it’s fair as well as transparent (The Conversation): Graham Kendall discusses how the rules must change in the wake of the revolution in scientific publishing because of the internet. Access, business models need to be fair, he says, but fairness is a matter of ethics, not of science or business.

BM-dodoclickThe storytelling scientist (Science): In his new book Houston, We Have a Narrative, Randy Olson (“Flock of Dodos“) encourages scientists to become better storytellers. His favorite model narrative is “The Dobzhansky Template” — “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.  Reviewer Rafael Luna provides a reality check:

Do scientists need to improve their scientific communication? The answer is a resounding “yes.” However, when crafting a scientific narrative, it is important to proceed with the same caution and precision as one would approach a scientific experiment and to remember that a narrative is only as good as the data on which it is based.

Beyond “publish or perish” (Science): Book review of The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It by Leonard Cassuto.  The book “traces the challenges facing graduate institutions, including antiquated admissions policies; incoherent course offerings; esoteric, gatekeeping qualifying exams; long times to degrees; and failure to prepare students for diverse career outcomes.”

A prescription to cure Big Pharma’s image problem (Medical Xpress): Is the bad reputation often ascribed to drug companies deserved? This article discusses reasons for it and possible actions. Deserved criticisms cannot be cured by propaganda, but undeserved bad raps are not fair, either.

Do you get the idea that science needs righteousness? It’s impossible to address any of these issues without integrity. If scientific organizations are nothing more than special interest groups out for government handouts like everyone else, forget it. Scientists are fallible humans like the rest of us, but without ethics based on a solid foundation, they can be particularly dangerous to everyone. There’s something noble, though, about a truly honest researcher who is also charitable and humble. Everyone can and should strive for those ideals.



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  • St-Wolfen says:

    Mixing human DNA with animal embryos, this will move to putting animal genes in living humans, or is already there, and is known as trans-humanism.

    Global warming, when the real increase since the early 1990s is only .36 of a degree, it’s pretty hard to get excited about it.

  • rockyway says:

    “Around the world, scientists are gathering to discuss the promise and perils of editing the genome of a human embryo. Should it be allowed — and if so, under what circumstances?”

    – While I consider this a nightmare, Freeman Dyson thinks this will be a great thing… and talks about it as a new art form… one that hopefully will be available for all. (cf. Dreams of Earth and Sky)

    “NIH reconsiders its rules for the kind of experiments he [a Salk Institute scientist] wants to do: mixing human stem cells into very early animal embryos and letting them develop, a strategy that could produce tissues or organs for transplantation.”

    – This brings back to mind the old sf stories of Cordwainer Smith… with many ‘hybrids’ (e.g. the cat girl) acting as slaves and labor devices, etc.

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