Thoughts on Social Responsibility and RCR

The article below is from the ORI Newsletter (June 2016, v23, no2).
Do you have thoughts on this topic? Please share them in the comment section below.

Thoughts on Social Responsibility and RCR
by Sandra Titus, PH.D.
In 2009, NIH updated the list of RCR training stipulations and directed institutions with training grants to consider developing educational material which would focus on “the scientist as a responsible member of society, contemporary ethical issues in biomedical research, and the environmental and societal impacts of scientific research.” 
What do you focus on when trying to lead a discussion with students on social responsibility? We will post this question on the ORI blog and hope you will participate with your thoughts on it.
A possible way to discuss it might stem from the recent publication by AAAS Science and Human Rights Commission. They posted research results from an international pilot study on scientists, health professionals, and engineers, which focused on their perceptions and the scope of their responsibilities.
These questions collectively examine the scientific community’s views on individual responsibilities to the larger society. Over 2000 professionals evaluated the ten items on a Likert scale and indicated how important each behavior was in their own lives.
The items listed below collapsed the scores into the portion that perceived the item to be of high value, versus those who did not think the item relevant to themselves. This table therefore illustrates the extent to which the items are valuable to some degree; importance ranged from a high of 95.8 to a low of 82.
Those younger felt more concerned about explaining their work to the public, whereas older subjects felt great concern if they suspected research misconduct. There were no gender differences. The responses from the three disciplines were similar to each other; regions of the world had differences with other regions, but those in a region were congruent with others from their region. AAAS plans to do additional research on this topic, and they leave us with several areas to consider:
  • How do scientists view minimizing risk versus maximizing benefits?
  • What influences perceptions – the impact from public, domestic, legal, disciplinary, institutions?
  • How do we establish priorities (if at all) among responsibilities?
  • How do views on the cultivation of the next generation influence them, and is this, too, a social responsibility?
Would trainees engage in such a discussion? How would trainees be likely to perceive themselves on
this set of values, and how would they compare with the scientists’ scoring? Do they think their views will change over time? What are the barriers they see in implementing these values?



Thanks to Dr. Titus for highlighting the AAAS report.  Because the pilot study used a convenience sample, we are not able to generalize findings beyond that sample.  To remedy that constraint, AAAS has received a grant from NSF to construct and test a survey intrument that will include a sample of ~12,500 scientists and engineers from around the world.  We hope to launch the survey in mid-2017. Should you want to be kept informed of our efforts, please contact Ellen Platts at eplatts@aaas.org.

I have been addressing the question raised by Dr. Titus for several years, seeking to make a case that RCR education should include social responsibility as one of its central topics.  Even after the NIH 2009 statement cited by Dr. Titus, not many educators were on board with the notion, nor were many scientists.  At the meeting of the 2nd World Conference on Research Integrity in Singapore, there was a very passionate debate on whether the planned Singapore Statement on Research Integrity (http://www.singaporestatement.org/statement.html) should make any reference to social responsibility.  In the end, those who supported its inclusion prevailed, and the last item listed in the Statement acknowledges scientists' responsibility to society.  Since then, interest in teaching about social responsibility has picked up, both in the scholarly literature and in the teaching of RCR.  In my message to those who approach the topic tentatively, I can only state the following: No student is likely to be inspired by being told not to plagiarize or falsify data. That doesn't make such matters irrelevant to his/her education as a scientist.  However, as educators we can all do more to inspire budding researchers in thinking of their careers in science as a way to serve society by putitng their knowledge and skills to work on making the world a better place.

Mark S. Frankel

Scientific Freedom, Responsiblity and Law Program, AAAS

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