We are living in the Information Age. A world where the internet, computers and smartphones are an essential part of our everyday lives, allowing us to immediately access and share information worldwide. Digital technologies have changed every aspect of our lives; from the way we work and learn to the way we play and socialize.
Just as our day-to-day lives have been forever changed, the emergence of the internet and digital technology have revolutionized the scientific world. Here in San Diego, where scientific research in both academia and industry form a substantial part of our economy, changes and advances in research have the potential to significantly impact our region, and the nation.
New digital technologies have automated experimental techniques, enabling scientists to perform large-scale studies that previously were all but impossible due to size and technical difficulty. Advancements in computing capabilities have enabled the development of bioinformatics, wherein scientists apply computer science and statistical algorithms to process and analyze huge sets of data. Furthermore, the ability to share information with the world through the internet has completely transformed how scientific findings are communicated and data are shared throughout the scientific community. One might argue that technological capabilities have advanced faster than our ability to comprehend their full potential and their regulation.
A similar scientific revolution occurred in the 1950s with the development of HeLa cells, the first immortal human cell line. During her recent Exploring Ethics lecture at the University of San Diego, Rebecca’s Skloot, author of the best-selling novel “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” discussed how the establishment of HeLa cells opened the doors to new areas of research and provided scientists with the tools to perform studies never before possible, forever changing the world of science.
Along with the excitement and innumerable important discoveries that HeLa cells generated, new problems and ethical dilemmas emerged. Many of these same issues have arisen with the advancements provided by the Information Age.
As discussed by Skloot, following their discovery, HeLa cells were freely and widely disseminated throughout the scientific community to anyone wanting a sample. As HeLa cells were shared throughout the world, passing from one scientist to the next, the distance between the end-user and the original source, Henrietta Lacks, grew larger and larger. For many scientists, elucidation and utilization of HeLa cells became an essential part of their research, yet the identity of Henrietta Lacks was completely unknown to them. It was nearly two decades before Henrietta Lacks was publicly identified and many more before her contribution was properly acknowledged.
Similarly, in today’s digital world, the wide and rapid spread of scientific information often leaves scientists responsible for generating the information without the credit and recognition warranted. Information made available through online journals, databases and repositories, blogs, websites, and email correspondence are re-posted on other forums and passed along innumerable times through email and social media. As the information travels throughout the digital world, it can become unclear where the material originated, causing the findings to be generalized or attributed to the wrong people.
Confusion over the source of data also contributes to the problem of data validation. In a world where information is most often obtained from the internet, how can we be sure that the information we obtain is accurate? If the source of the information is not known, it is even more difficult to make a proper assessment of its reliability. While validation of data has always been important, it is even more so given the ease with which computational tools are available to novices and the increased potential for an impact of fraud in the Information Age.
Digital technologies enable scientists to perform experiments not previously possible to conduct. However digital technologies also make it possible to manipulate scientific data and research results to an extent not previously possible or detectible. Experimental results captured in digital formats can be altered to remove unwanted findings and enhance data to support a particular hypothesis. With more research involving analysis of large data sets that can now be generated by new technology, statistical analysis will play an even greater role in scientific research, which may provide more opportunity for misrepresentation through skewed statistics.
Unskilled data treatment and manipulation may unintentionally lead to misrepresentation. With new technologies continuously emerging, and information being generated at a rapid rate, even scientists may lack proper training and make mistakes in using the new tools, resulting in inaccurate data. Even worse, data treatment and manipulation may be conducted with intent to misrepresent or mislead, when scientists crack under the pressure to publish.
Alternatively, the excitement generated by new technology and its potential to enable seminal scientific discoveries may cause scientists to engage in wishful thinking, wanting anxiously to see something in the data, with the result that they are less than objective in processing and interpretation of results. They may unintentionally overlook problems and focus intently on what they want to see. In her book, Rebecca Skloot provides an example of this lack of objectivity, when she recounts how the scientific community was led astray due to its excitement over the potential of cell culture. Cell cultures and immortal cell lines held the promise of endless research possibilities and major scientific discovery, a very seductive combination. Perhaps due to the establishment of a library of seemingly novel and valuable cell lines and the excitement over the flurry of new findings, the contamination of the cell lines by HeLa cells was overlooked, rendering much of the work done with these cell lines worthless.
Whether intentional or unintentional, all scientific misrepresentations have the potential to cause serious damage to the scientific community. They can not only lead scientific investigation down wrong paths, distracting from other truly meaningful discoveries, they can also create public mistrust. While it is clear that attempts should be made to prevent scientific misrepresentation, care must be taken to strike the right balance between regulation and scientific independence.
Whether it be the establishment of the first immortal human cell line or the dawn of the Information Age, rapid advancement in scientific research not only provides the potential for important scientific discovery but it can also create new dilemmas that challenge us from both ethical and technological perspectives. Although the development of appropriate regulations enables us to reap the rewards of scientific progress while protecting us from its pitfalls, it can take years to establish regulations in response to a new technology. As the scope of scientific research continues to rapidly change and evolve, ethical and scientific regulation will be hard pressed to keep pace.
The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology will be hosting a free public forum on February 1 at 5:30 p.m. to further explore how scientific research has been impacted in the Information Age. This forum is part of the Henrietta Lacks Series and you can register here to attend.
Dr. Katherine Kantardjieff is founding Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics at California State University San Marcos and Director of the Keck Center for Molecular Structure.
Margaret Ng Thow Hing is an intellectual property attorney and former scientist and writes as a member of the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology.
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