Young scientists wrestle with ethical dilemmas in research

Before this summer, Lacie Koppelman hadn't thought much about the ethical questions involved in determining who gets first authorship on a research paper, or when two sets of scientists working on curing the same disease should share their information.

For Koppelman, a biology major and rising Emory senior, her ongoing research on the effects of caffeine on brain chemistry were far more enthralling than the abstract principles of ethics in science. As one of 75 participants in the 1996 Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program at Emory, those abstract principles were brought to life for Koppelman and her fellow budding scientists.

With major funding from the Hughes Summer Research Program, SURE enrolled 75 participants this summer, the largest number ever. The program allows each student participant to conduct an independent research project in collaboration with a faculty member.

According to biology faculty member Pat Marsteller, director of the Hughes program, what makes this summer's SURE program different from past years is the addition of an extensive ethics and values in science component, made possible in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation's Ethics and Values Studies Program.

"Students were introduced to this component," Marsteller explained, "with a simulation game where they were divided into research teams and competed to `define the structure of a molecule' that would cure an important disease." As the teams raced to find the answer, money, conflict of interest and spies for other labs complicated the scenario. Scientific teams were required to write up their experiments, leading to intense discussions of authorship, responsibilities and rewards.

After the initial session that included the simulation, smaller groups of students met for four more sessions during the summer. Student groups were responsible for presenting case studies or devising their own cases to provoke discussion.

Koppelman said she was initially skeptical about the ethics and values component, assuming it would be "just another seminar" to sit through. To her surprise, she was intrigued by the simulation session. "They had a group of blocks in a structure in a secluded room," she said. "We had to look at it one at a time and memorize one view of it. Then we had to put it together. Some of the people, including me, were spies. Suspected spies could be thrown out of the group at any time."

The smaller group sessions that followed the simulation prompted Koppelman to consider issues she hadn't previously. "One of the sessions was about authorship," she said. "How do you decide who should be first author? What's fair?" Koppelman said her group also wrestled with the contradictions presented by commercial competition in scientific research, such as the value of scientists working on similar projects in different labs sharing information versus the value of competition in getting new products to the marketplace faster.

"It really is a tradeoff because science is a business," Koppelman said. "The sessions helped me realize that these kinds of things happen all the time."

--Dan Treadaway

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