Science in the Tropics Series – Part 2 – A narrow road: how to reconcile ethics with the progress of science

Publicação: 6 de November de 2019

Like technology, the evolution of science has a strong influence on progress, as well as generating great controversy around the world

A developed country is about science, technology and health, but to what extent can science affect ethical standards?

In the discussion on science and ethics, the central issue is to adapt science to the ethical impositions of a society to the point where it adapts to scientific implications. Science, the manifestation of human curiosity and the needs of civilization, always tends to the unlimited. It is up to the society to establish ethical parameters for science to develop based on respect for human, animal and environmental integrity. But can science investigate anything it wants? Should a researcher intervene with colleagues if he or she notices something in their conduct that seems doubtful or wrong? Is science today less ethical and less wholesome than in the past? These and other topics will be addressed in this second article in the series of reports produced by the Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine (BSTM) on “Science in the Tropics”.

Several ethical and moral issues have arisen in the field of science. To deal with them, various codes of conduct have been produced. This shows that the actors involved, whether researchers or funders, have noted that the culture that underpinned scientific communities and ensured the circulation of knowledge faces boundary challenges, such as how and what to do in research. Recently the University of São Paulo (USP) has prepared and disclosed a “Guide of Good Scientific Practices”. The document provides information on ethics and integrity and on research with human beings, with animal or plant species and in relation to the environment. In addition, the document defines the role of those responsible for the research (researcher and institution) and presents the types of fraud (research, authorship and publication) of scientific works, as well as other related information. Professor Sylvio Canuto, Dean of Research at USP, explains that the publication is intended for the general academic public and is for informational and preventive purposes. With a synthetic structure and objective language, the Guide, along with other initiatives of the Rectory of Research, has a pedagogical character and aims to make researchers aware of good scientific conduct, as well as to prevent fraud and ethically unacceptable conduct.

The Dean recalls that in the past, people were used in risky experiments and without any kind of ethical control. Animals were also used indiscriminately to the same extent that there was no concern for responsible living with the environment. But from the 1980s onwards, the issue of fraud in scientific publications became prominent: in the wake of “publish or perish”, a number of irregularities related to researches published in high-level journals were discovered. According to him, the demand for publication of the research results would have exerted unprecedented pressure on researchers, which resulted in some cases of hasty publication of experiments without reproducible conditions and even cases of plagiarism. “Now we have more mechanisms to detect research fraud. Our ability to track irregularities is enhanced as we have access to scientific findings from around the world, as well as easy-to-use tools to check for similarities and other misconduct”, he says. The professor is categorical in saying that a researcher should intervene with colleagues if he or she notices something in their conduct that seems doubtful or wrong, since the scientific community has a duty to watch over good scientific practices and to ward off misconduct. Dr. Canuto also pays attention to the risks in scientific development. “Researches that poses immediate risks to people, groups and ecosystems should be carefully examined by their ethics committees”, he emphasizes.

For Dr. Renato Cordeiro, who is a Full member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC) and Emeritus researcher at Fiocruz, science today is no less ethical and less comprehensive than in the past. In his opinion, it happens that institutions, funding agencies and journals, abroad – and now in Brazil – have created the necessary Committees of Ethics, Integrity, and Good Scientific Practices (FAPESP, CNPq, Fiocruz, USP, among others), who are examining and detecting potential ethical deviations in research activities. According to him, the existence of plagiarism tracking programs in scientific articles and theses have also contributed to identify these mishaps.

Regarding the credibility of research from countries such as India and Brazil, Dr. Cordeiro guarantees that they are credibly equivalent to research conducted in developed countries. “Science of excellence is developed at Brazilian Universities and Research Institutes, placing us in 13th in the ranking of productivity of articles indexed in the Web of Science and a large number of high-level international cooperation with developed countries. This solid work developed in our institutions, gives us great credibility and a prominent role to Brazil in international science”, he recognizes by arguing that for this reason it is essential that the Federal Government backslashes the drastic budget cuts that directly affect the Brazilian scientific community, and return to investing heavily in ST&I, just like first world countries. “In the current government, we are having dramatic moments in Brazil, with the unfortunate budget cuts in ST&I, Education and Environment, clearly showing that ST&I is not a priority for the current government. It is essential that the government resumes the solid and permanent investments again, through CNPq, Capes, Finep (Sectorial Funds), which adequately contemplate investigations with neglected diseases, and other researches of excellence carried out at Universities and Research Institutes, he says.

Benefit of science for the common good

While discussing the progress of science, we have referred to certain limits of scientific knowledge, listing a number of factors that interfere with the direction of research activities from which scientific knowledge results. The director of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC) Dr. Lucile Maria Floeter Winter understands that to maximize the benefit of science for the common good, it is necessary to invest in science and the society must act fairly, giving knowledge access to all individuals. For her, for example, public health problems may have a solution based on basic research. The scientist always seeks to advance in the field of knowledge, so his or her actions may result in immediate products or not. All human actions can be used for good or for bad. Santos Dumont was depressed to see his invention (the plane) being used to throw bombs in war. “Only a just society can think of the good of humanity”, he emphasizes.

The Dean of Research at USP adds that research is carried out as an unrestricted response to human and societal problems and may encompass the most diverse agendas. However, it is necessary to keep in mind the nature of the research carried out at a public university, funded by public funding agencies, with public resources. The findings, in this case, should benefit the population. In addition, the data and results must remain available to the scientific community and society at large, so that research can be replicated and resumed for new purposes, with less time and resources. Society in general should, in turn, have the right to inform itself about research conducted with public funds, an important expedient of transparency and rapprochement between the scientific community and the general population.

Regarding the scientist’s exemption, he understands the need to reinforce that good science has no ideological color. It starts from the observation of nature and societies and builds on rigorous work based on the scientific method. For this reason, despite the scientist’s personal convictions, he or she must be committed to the correctness of data analysis and presentation of results. One cannot resort to scientific fraud to reinforce a political stance. In this sense, peer evaluation represents an important instrument for controlling science, as well as open science, which supposes the publication of research data for reproducibility purposes. Through these mechanisms, a researcher who intends to subordinate data to personal convictions ends up discredited by the scientific community.

Asked how to draw the boundary between science and non-science and the role of Brazilian researchers as protagonists dealing with neglected diseases in developing countries with vulnerable populations, the SBPC director points out that Science is developed through the application of the scientific method and there is a hypothesis to be tested that can be validated or refuted. “Neglected diseases, for example, are named as such because they occur in developing countries and do not receive financial support for their study. Brazil has shown its importance as a protagonist in the case of the Zika virus. It is basic science forming good researchers who very quickly were able to resolve the issue. Without this basic training, we will not have a staff capable of resolving issues and will have to buy the solutions to our problems at a high cost. These costs will be much higher than the investment in training scientists”, he says.

Dr. Renato Cordeiro agrees with SBPC director, Dr. Lucile Maria Floeter Winter, and adds that Dr. Celina Turchi, a researcher at the Aggeu Magalhães Research Center, Fiocruz, with a work that showed the association of the Zika virus with microcephaly, is an excellent example of Brazilian researchers working with neglected diseases. “Her research demonstrates the excellence of the investigations carried out by Brazilian scientists in the field and the importance of support from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Science, Technology & Innovation and their funding agencies (CNPq, FINEP) for the resolution of diseases that affect the vulnerable populations. For this reason, we are very concerned about the current government budget cuts that are making the funding of our main funding bodies unfeasible, blocking resources and strategic scholarships for science and public health in Brazil”, he says.

Capable researchers and unrecognized work

In science, we still struggle with the lack of a Nobel Prize. At least 16 Brazilians could have already received the Prize. For Dr. Lucile Maria Floeter Winter, the fact that Brazil has never won the Prize involves several reasons, but in her opinion, the strongest reason is political, since the names should have national support from scientists and rulers. Dr. Renato Cordeiro confirms that Brazilian researchers are conducting research of excellent international level and could already have been awarded a Nobel Prize, just as the Latin American brothers (Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela and Guatemala). He cites, among the numerous examples of scientists who could have received the honor, Carlos Chagas, Adolpho Lutz, Oswaldo Cruz, Mauricio Rocha e Silva, Cesar Lattes, Johanna Döbereiner, Jorge Amado, and others. “With current budget cutbacks and governmental stance on the areas of ST&I, Education, Culture and Environment, the lack of motivation of young people threatened to have their scholarships blocked, and a predictable (and already begun) diaspora for first-tier countries world, it will become increasingly difficult for Brazil to be awarded a Nobel Prize. Except if the prize is the Nobel Peace Prize”, says Dr. Renato Cordeiro.

Funding in developing countries is limited and research is not a priority for policy makers

Undeniably, there is a direct or indirect dependence of virtually all scientific knowledge on the decisions made by scientists, whether individually or in groups, which are linked to social, political, economic and religious agents, among others. According to USP’s Dean of Research, science is a social good, which is why most of the funding comes from the State, in all countries that produce quality research, and it must be understood as a good and a manifestation of society, and for this reason its findings must be available to all. Still according to Dr. Sylvio Canuto, the total “privatization” of science, as argued in some ways, with the withdrawal of state resources, would result in the end of science itself, including for market reasons.

When it comes to research funding, it is changing so that it does not adequately address biodiversity and poverty-related diseases. Funding in developing countries is limited and research is not a priority for policy makers. For Dr. Lucile Maria Floeter Winter, from the SBPC, Science must be nonpartisan and aimed at the common good. “Research funding is an investment that always generates returns, both as a product and as knowledge that will be the basis for solving new problems. The biggest return is the formation of priceless brains”, she adds. Still according to the expert, Brazil could lead research in Global Health with the training of competent personnel. But nowadays it is more interesting to work in collaboration with other researchers from developed or developing countries, with the exchange of experiences, the so-called globalization of knowledge.

Science does not advance linearly, and it is not even possible to guarantee rapid and undisputed results. Science takes time. In the case of big research, it takes many years to come up with results that will produce business profits – and sometimes the results go the other way. “The exclusive funding of serious and quality research by private enterprise would therefore result in annihilating both: research, which would become dependent on an agenda imposed by private capital but whose temporality does not coincide with its own; and companies, which would be decapitalized while waiting for the time of the science production process”, he adds. On the other hand, Dr. Canuto thinks this does not mean that the regulatory bodies control the choice of topics and problems. Rather, it is the establishment of ethical standards based on historical and philosophical parameters that take into account the well-being of people, societies and ecosystems.

“For the same reason, the treatment of research data must comply with strict corrective criteria: in the case of research involving human subjects, participants must have their identities preserved and be informed about the use and further storage of the data produced by them; publicly funded research should maintain data transparency so that experiments can be reproduced by peers; research carried out in partnership with the private sector should receive attention so that there is no conflict of interest, and should also open its data from time to time”, concludes Dr. Canuto.

Mankind’s ceaseless pursuit for knowledge has yielded many remarkable results, but scientific advances, especially the evolution of biotechnology and its constructive and destructive consequences, require intervention so that the hegemony of science does not make human dignity less important, so science must go hand in hand with ethics.