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Case Two: Career Dreams Up in Smoke?

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RCR Casebook: Social Responsibility

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Brett is a postdoctoral fellow in an NIH funded neuroscience laboratory. The lab uses state-of-the-art imaging techniques to delineate regions of the brain that are involved with the stress response. Their research focuses on the functional imaging of human subjects who are allowed to watch video clips that induce stress: people running late, missing appointments, multitasking, letting a partner down, etc. They have validated their model by measuring cortisol levels in the blood, and are able to demonstrate a correlation between cortisol levels increasing and increases in metabolic activity in discrete regions of the brain, such as the hypothalamus and the amygdala. Brett has been first author on several well-received publications, and he is now thinking ahead to faculty positions that might be opening up this year.

Unexpectedly, Brett gets a phone call from a head hunter for a “major manufacturer” asking if Brett might be interested in a position as a staff scientist with this firm. The salary would be $150,000 per year, with great benefits and an enormous signing bonus. Of course, Brett wants to hear more. The head hunter asks for an airport interview, and they pay Brett’s airfare plus $500 to fly into Chicago, meet for two hours with the recruiter, and then fly home. Brett is very excited! With a second baby on the way, he and his wife have been counting the minutes until he has a “real job”, and this seems more like a dream job! Brett flies to Chicago.

The recruiter has a prepared list of questions, many of them focusing on specific imaging techniques and whether Brett would feel comfortable using them. Brett feels confident that he could perform those techniques. The recruiter also wants to know about Brett’s availability, and when he could start. The sooner he decides, the faster they would offer the signing bonus. Only after an hour and a half does the recruiter allow Brett to ask questions. He asks about the nature of the research – what would he really be working on? The recruiter hedges, saying that there are trade secrets involved and she is not at liberty to discuss too many details. However, she can tell Brett that he would be studying addiction. The manufacturer would want to know what regions of the brain were involved in addiction, and if stimulation of other regions of the brain by visual images might override addictive thoughts. This seems like a very valuable line of research to Brett. He asks if at least she can tell him who the manufacturer is, and she replies only that it is a major manufacturer of tobacco products.

At first, that seems OK to Brett. He has left the recruiter and is on his flight back home, reflecting on the possibilities of the new position. The recruiter seemed very enthusiastic about Brett, and indicated that the next step would be to arrange an interview at the company headquarters. Suddenly, it dawns on Brett. The tobacco manufacturer is likely doing research on how to design advertisements that would promote addictive behavior, using neural imaging as a read-out! Brett would be using all of his scientific training to promote tobacco use. His training was perfect for the manufacturer, but was this position right for him? If his speculations are correct, his research would not really be used directly to help humanity, but to trick customers into using more tobacco. Of course, if Brett didn’t take this position, someone else would – he could not stop this advertising strategy. And his family could really use the money.

What should Brett do?

Discussion Questions for the Facilitator

  • Does Brett have an ethical obligation to refuse the job? To take the job?
  • How should Brett reconcile the needs of his family versus the needs of society? Does he owe a greater obligation to care for his family?
  • Is neuroscience research aimed at stimulating subconscious thoughts or behaviors ethical? Is it regulated by anyone?
  • Have you ever watched a commercial and felt that you have been manipulated to buy something, or drink something? Did that make you feel as though your rights had somehow been violated?