Responsible conduct in research

The grand majority of scientists strive for sound science and many work to call out bad science. Unfortunately, there will always be examples of research misconduct, such as the confusing story of the Golden Rice trial in China. In some cases, science that clearly has methodical  statistical, and other errors gets published and and even used to decide national policies. While responsible research conduct seems like common sense, these examples show that at least some of us need help.

The InterAcademy Council, an organization of all the world’s science academies, just released a timely report: Responsible Conduct in the Global Research Enterprise. Scientific fraud is a major reason why they decided to focus on this subject. An editorial by the report’s co-chairs goes so far as to specifically call out the Seralini study as exemplar of the problems of blurring lines between science and advocacy (although the report was started before the offending paper was published).

The face of science is changing… More countries and more institutions are getting into research. New fields are emerging and new technologies are merging other fields. Scarcity of resources is causing more governments to try to base their policies on science. For all of these reasons and more, the world needs sound standards for responsible research conduct. The report is well worth a read for scientists as a reminder of best practices and for non-scientists as an explanation of what to look for when determining the trustworthiness of a study.


  1. Want another reason why we need to pay attention to international research ethics? The US funds research all over the world. It’s not a huge percentage of our research spending, but every penny counts so let’s hope all of the researchers are using the very best conduct. World RePORT shows where funding from the Department of Health and Human services is going. Also interesting is the NSF-funded Research Data Alliance which aims to facilitate international sharing of data. Lots of good international work going on!

  2. I think that it was a mistake not to provide full information to the parents of the children who would be test subjects, and to not declare to Chinese officials that nature of the “Golden Rice” that was imported; for ethical reasons. If they had followed those steps and done it properly, then Greenpeace would likely not have been able to generate the negative publicity that they were able to do. I think it is interesting that you mention the Golden Rice trial because Mark Lynas discusses it in his me culpa lecture at the Oxford Farming Conference:

    The second example comes from China, where Greenpeace managed to trigger a national media panic by claiming that two dozen children had been used as human guinea pigs in a trial of GM golden rice. They gave no consideration to the fact that this rice is healthier, and could save thousands of children from vitamin A deficiency-related blindness and death each year.
    What happened was that the three Chinese scientists named in the Greenpeace press release were publicly hounded and have since lost their jobs, and in an autocratic country like China they are at serious personal risk. Internationally because of over-regulation golden rice has already been on the shelf for over a decade, and thanks to the activities of groups like Greenpeace it may never become available to vitamin-deficient poor people.
    This to my mind is immoral and inhumane, depriving the needy of something that would help them and their children because of the aesthetic preferences of rich people far away who are in no danger from Vitamin A shortage. Greenpeace is a $100-million a year multinational, and as such it has moral responsibilities just like any other large company.

  3. Yes, in hindsight it was an ethical faux pas not to give full disclosure to the Chinese. And it did open a window for Greenpeace to climb in. But, no one forced Greenpeace to derail this lifesaving technology and like a criminal that took advantage of a carelessly opened window, Greenpeace is no less culpable for it. It should be pointed out that most of us have no representation in these NGO’s that would govern us nonetheless.

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