Without Ethics in Research, Who Would Stop Frankenstein?

Initially sounding far-fetched and even silly, a closer examination of the question, “Without ethics in research, who would stop Frankenstein?” is warranted given what the sciences are able to do, that living beings from mice to humans are often involved, and not every researcher has pure motives.

It isn’t only medicine and genetics research that, without ethical standards, could have long-lasting and devastating results on the world at large, but even the less technical fields of the social sciences in which having standards of practice, from revealing any biases to funding sources could impact the outcome of scientific studies.

The fictional Dr. Frankenstein, based loosely on a real individual, performed his experiment in a time when the tools of science were primitive compared to those of today and the even more sophisticated tools and knowledge of tomorrow. Still, Frankenstein’s experiment, bereft of any ethical standards, had tragic consequences for many, including the doctor himself.

We can look to real life and the not-so-distant past to find research done on unsuspecting people, from the horrendous experiments conducted in Nazi Germany to 22 unethical studies in biomedicine performed in the United States prior to 1966, the most famous of which was the Tuskegee syphilis study. It wasn’t until 1974 that the United States passed the National Research Act, allowing the various federal agencies to establish ethical guidelines for research involving humans – eight years after the first Animal Rights Act was passed, issuing ethical practices for the use of animals in research.

Many of us look back in horror at what was done to fellow human beings in the name of science. Still, the intentions of many of those who developed those studies sounded morally good, even if the methods teetered on the criminal.

These days, researchers are held accountable from the inception of a study idea through the publication of their research. Ethics committees, fellow scientists, the scientific community at large and even the general public provide oversight and feedback to the research community.

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Still, technological advances are developed before ethical considerations for their use are forthcoming. Great strides have been made in the field of genetics, for example, with the discovery and development of the CRISPR-Cas9 technique, allowing modifications of genes that could only be dreamed of a decade ago. At the International Summit on Gene Editing held in December 2015, the group was unable – or unwilling – to ban genetic modification of embryos now possible using CRISPR. This inaction at the summit was despite the objections of several scientists there who opposed such experimentation.

Research ethics are viable, ever-changing principles that guide scientists and reassure the rest of us that experimentation and studies will be conducted, not only for the greater good, but respecting the rights of the individual. They are not perfect, but without them, we might have had a real Frankenstein monster already in our midst.

Image Credit: Featured Image via Twitter, PMI Institute: https://twitter.com/PMInstitute/status/760893086880899072

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