- Conflict of Interest:A Major Obstacle to Preserving Scientific Integrity
In a popular UK television motoring show, Top Gear, the host of the show, Jeremy Clarkson, asked if a particular car "J" was considered cool or un-cool. One particular member of the audience shouted, "Cool!". Surprised by such an enthusiastic and immediate response, Jeremy asked if he worked for the company that made the car. Sheepishly, he said, "Yes".
Conflict of interest is not merely a declaration by individuals during a hiring process or simply an affirmation at the end of a peer-reviewed article. It is a major principle underlying and encompassing the reasons why people develop peculiar traits or perform certain inconceivable actions, such as data fabrication or fraud. The importance of preserving scientific integrity can sometimes be obscured by conflicts of interests attached to the needs of each individual. These conflicts may also be associated with the demands pertaining to each job portfolio. Beginning with a true story, I will attempt to discuss the role of conflict of interest as a major principle in obscuring scientific integrity.
Jane is a junior scientist. She is extremely conscientious about her work and takes great pride in the experiments she conducts. She works in a commercial company that requires her to perform experiments to verify the quality of the [End Page 72] company's product when used in the field. Generally, consumers are agreeable to million dollar deals if the product is proven to be efficacious. Therein lies a problem: there is an inherent biasness towards the need to produce good data in order to preserve the business. What if the results turn out bad? Jane has a supervisor, Mark. He is extremely cautious about preserving his job and his reputation as a productive manager in the company. Because of the small size of the company, he is also the only personnel responsible for verifying data generated by his subordinates. One day, the results fell short of what was expected. Mark asked Jane to forge the data in order to preserve the business. Jane refused. Mark insisted and using his power as a supervisor, he forced her to change the data and submit the expected results in order to help the company clinch the deal. Jane reluctantly complied. Feeling condemned, she has now left the company.*
As I pondered upon this sad incident, I could not help but scrutinise the underlying reasons behind their actions. Fresh from university, many graduates, like Jane, believe in the noble career as a scientist. Scientists are generally meticulous. Those who perform tasks as technicians are sometimes so well versed in their portfolio that they hardly make any mistakes over time. They are obsessed with those tiny buttons which they press and the meniscus markings on their pipettes which they observe in order to get the final reading right. As the machine reads out the data, they wait in great expectancy and celebrate when the task is completed. Experienced technicians can easily tell apart a real data and an experimental artefact. They can discern if an air bubble might have been trapped in the sample, thus obscuring and skewing readings from the spectrophotometer. Integrity, repeatable data and sound scientific reasoning are always expected of scientists.
Managers on the other hand, have different agendas on their mind. Words like "return on investment", "sales" and "revenue" often appear in their daily conversations and thoughts. Customers are like the king, and they are their servants. The staff working under them would be their slaves. Revenue is important to the company and a good manager knows that. The profit is necessary to offset the rental, pay the bills and the salaries of all staff, including themselves. The extras could be used for upgrading, and where necessary, for entertaining customers who seek that extra personal touch when doing businesses. Their objective is to create higher volumes of sales. In order to do so, the customers must be confident of the product. There is only one minor obstacle. The scientist performing product verification must present favourable results, so that he can use that to affirm the customer of quality of the company...