The Grey Area–When Ethics aren’t Always Black and White

12 Apr

For some reason, it seems like a great deal of the public believes that scientists are out to get them, whether it be by poisoning your food with GMOs or using autism-causing vaccines on your children. Scientists have gotten a bad rap lately. And while some scientists aren’t doing anything to help their case, not all of them are only looking out for number one.

I recently sat down with James W. Simpkins, Ph.D., Professor at West Virginia University, Director of the Center for Basic and Translational Stroke Research and the Barbara B. Highland Stroke Chair. Simpkins had gotten some bad publicity at the end of 2016. An article published in the New York Times depicted Simpkins as an unethical, money-hungry scientist, in bed with the Swiss agricultural business giant, Syngenta.

The article describes Simpkins’ relationship with Syngenta in an extremely skewed manner. It appears, based solely on the fact that Simpkins has a working relationship with a company, he is automatically viewed as biased and unethical. “I would never engage in research that would produce data that a company wants” Simpkins said. “You do research to answer questions. Every company I’ve consulted for or done research for has been after the truth-not what’s best for the company.”

Simpkins has a very strong research background, with over 300 research publications, authoring several books, and bringing in over 50 million dollars for university research. Simpkins has made a tremendous impact on the fields of neuroscience, aging and disease, neuroendocrine functioning, and neurodegeneration. Because of his excellent background and scientific skills, Simpkins, like many other scientists, was sought out by companies to help them plan and execute top-notch scientific studies.

There are precautions involved for everyone involved in these types of working relationships. Simpkins explained that whenever university faculty intend on working for a company outside of the university, they are required to disclose specific information regarding their role in that relationship. They must communicate everything from the nature of the work, who their company contacts are, to who, what, where, when, and how the research will be conducted. Only after obtaining approval from the university may the faculty member in question participate in research with the outside company. As long as there are no conflicts of interest, the university generally allows faculty to engage in these types of relationships because it is beneficial for all parties, as we seek the truth and forge onwards as a community of scientists.

In addition to working with other companies, faculty are also permitted to start their own companies. Simpkins and colleague Charles Breckenridge, of Syngenta, are planning on starting their own consulting company, with the caveat of launching their business venture only after Breckenridge has retired from his position at Syngenta. Their company will provide consulting services within academia; however they would never consult for or with WVU while Simpkins is still an employee, as that would be a conflict of interest. “I’ve been consulting since the mid 1980’s with companies, foundations, associations, universities, and the U.S. government”, Simpkins said. With having almost 40 years of experience, one would think that Simpkins would know how to avoid conflicts of interest and ethical issues.

Simpkins’ ties with industry appear to be genuinely for bettering the greater good. The media often portrays scientists with company contracts as only being in it for the money. “I did the calculations. I have donated more money to charities than I’ve even made consulting. If I was out to make money I wouldn’t give a dime to other people”, said Simpkins.

It is not fair to conclude that just because a scientist works for a company in addition to their position within academia that they must be falsifying data or skewing it to fit their client’s preferences. What most people don’t realize is that every piece of data collected within or for a company is required to be reported to the government. These types of studies are probably more reliable than those conducted within academia as outliers cannot be excluded, and every single thing is heavily scrutinized.

Scientists aren’t really that much different than everyone else, and I would guess that the majority of them want what is best for mankind. Making people sick or destroying the environment are not at the top of most scientists to do lists (unless they’re an evil scientist).

And even if a scientist wanted to destroy the world, barring them from conducting research outside of an academic institution would do little to stop them. I believe that an evil person will do evil things, regardless of their job description. If someone has no moral compass, they are going to wreak havoc regardless of their profession. It just so happens that sometimes, those people grow up to become scientists.

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