Ethical Dilemmas in Biochemical Research Funding

Emily Lesch

Writer’s comment: Through my work in labs over the past few years, I have become interested in how they operate in the real world trying to achieve research goals while searching for funding to support those goals. Because the class was a scientific writing class, I approached the topic much like a scientist approaches a research question. The first step was observing and gathering data by going out into “the field” to interview Dr. Callis and Dr. Morand, who were very open and good sources of information. After I got their responses, I analyzed my data and found common themes. Those themes led me to my “hypothesis” about the ethical problems facing biochemists in the pursuit of funding. The paper fell into place from there because Dr. Callis and Dr. Morand expressed very different points of view on the subject of funding. Their opinions and observations gave me much material to work with.
—Emily Lesch

Instructor’s comment: Emily Lesch’s paper, which discusses biochemical research, is smart and insightful. In English 102, Writing in the Biological Sciences, I asked the students to write an essay, focused by a research question and answer, examining either the ethical conduct of research in the biological sciences or the role of writing in the biological sciences. After reading a series of short pieces emphasizing the communal nature of scientific inquiry and publication and the systems of checks and balances, including peer-review, by which scientists monitor themselves, the students interviewed at least two university researchers. Many of the students asked questions and determined answers that essentially confirmed the somewhat idealized version of the biological sciences that the readings conveyed. In contrast, Emily asked how increasing pressures for funding are impacting the conduct of research in biochemistry. In answering this question, her essay is particular, detailed, objective, and highly informative—she reveals her own careful scientific inquiry.
—Susan Palo, English Department

In recent years, a technology explosion has greatly advanced the field of biology. Researchers have found ways to see inside individual cells, isolate their organelles, and determine their protein composition. These biochemical techniques introduced in the last thirty years have changed the field dramatically. Researchers now study the biochemistry of different types of cells, including bacterial, plant, and animal cells. The explosion of new biochemical research has led to a greater demand for funding and a scarcity of money available for particular research. This situation creates new, increasingly complex ethical issues in research because of the need to obtain grants and to satisfy granting agencies.
         Grants from the government and private industry are the only practical means of funding biochemical research. The number of research proposals has far surpassed the amount of grant money available (National Academy of Sciences [NAS], 1995). Judy Callis, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Section of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of California at Davis, laments that “there is not enough money to fund all meritorious proposals.” Granting agencies are selective in the type of research that they fund. Larry Morand, Ph.D., a lecturer in the Section of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University California at Davis, says there is “an anti plant science bias,” because the agencies primarily want to fund research that is animal-directed and that is applicable to humans. Dr. Callis agrees that the major funding agencies want to study processes and systems that affect humans. The plant science grants are much smaller than those given to researchers studying animals because fewer agencies give money to plant research. However, she points out that scientists who channel their research by studying basic systems in plants, such as genetics, can often get more grant money because their research could possibly be applied to humans, though animal research funding is still much greater. She says that it is particularly difficult for a plant scientist to get grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which are very lucrative, because it is hard to apply plant research to humans. The NIH does, however, fund animal research that can loosely be applied to humans. Vladimir Pravosudov, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Section of Neurobiology, Physiology, and Behavior at the University of California at Davis, does research on the memory capabilities of Black-capped Chickadees and has a grant from the NIH because his research can be applied to issues involving human memory.
         The type of granting agency also directly affects the research being done. Dr. Morand states that industry and other private agencies try to control the research they fund and guide the scientists toward a topic of the agency’s choosing, for a desired application for the company. Federal granting agencies, on the other hand, take a laissez faire approach toward what their funded scientists do, letting the researchers come up with their own projects. Even for somewhat looser federally-funded projects, however, there is pressure to meet expectations, particularly for experienced researchers and even more so once a project is funded and renewal funding is sought. According to Dr. Callis, the first renewal is harder to get than the original grant because ongoing research where actual results may be equivocal is examined more critically than the initial proposal and promise of results. Dr. Callis also says that granting agencies treat researchers differently, with a young researcher being held to less stringent standards on her renewal application than an experienced researcher with a good reputation whose work is closely scrutinized before renewal money is granted.
         Until tenure, researchers are funded by the University and feel all their pressure from the University to publish their results from the university grants. Tenured professors, on the other hand, are primarily funded by outside agencies and receive only a salary from the University. Dr. Callis feels more pressure to publish her results from her granting agencies than from the University. This pressure to publish by a granting agency might influence a scientist to throw out data that does not fit into the scientist’s preconceived project expectations. Dr. Callis acknowledges that the urge to manipulate data is there, especially with new technology such as computer software that makes manipulation very easy. Manipulation can occur with new computer programs that can change the result, such as deleting a lane in a gel. Data points that do not fit into expectations can also be deleted, being considered outliers by computer programs that are doctored. Despite this temptation to manipulate data, Dr. Callis feels “honesty must be your guide,” when performing research. For Dr. Callis, the experimental design and how well the experiment is executed are most important, even more important than the results. When a researcher encounters unexpected results, she can revise the research question and begin a new path in the research. The key is to treat the data objectively and ethically to maintain the scientific methodology, regardless of outside pressure. “Publishing is not as important as producing thorough, ethical work, maintaining proper scientific protocols,” according to Dr. Callis, who tends toward an idealistic view of the process.
         The scarcity of funding caused by an increasing number of projects also leads to increased competition among researchers and can hinder the intellectual teamwork that is integral to the scientific process. Researchers are less likely to want to share their ideas and data because of fear of losing their competitive edge in the publishing of their work. The question for many scientists is when to share ideas and results and when not to. Many researchers are reluctant to share unpublished material with competitors. This was not always the case, according to Dr. Morand, who observed that in the 1950s and 1960s, there were few (~300) plant biochemists, and everyone knew each other and met at conferences in a collegial atmosphere. Results and ideas were passed around more freely, because there were “friendly rivalries,” but no one was out to get the others. Starting in the 1970s, stealing information became more common, and by the 1980s, researchers were cautious in revealing all of their research results and ideas in grant applications for fear of revealing details that would give competitive edge to rivals in their field. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) (1995) considers “exploit[ation]” of unpublished information, such as that presented in a grant application, as “stealing intellectual property.”
         The NAS (1995) states that researchers do not have to reveal all their data and their theories during all phases of the experiment. When an experiment is in the hypothesis stage, researchers have a “period of privacy” during which they can interpret results and make preliminary conclusions. Dr. Morand agrees, saying, “It is not unethical not to disclose a preliminary hypothesis.” He goes even further, suggesting that to prevent intellectual theft, researchers on grant applications should only disclose the very beginnings of the research and purposely leave out all the steps relating the working hypothesis to the experiment. This “white lie,” as he puts it, is essential to prevent theft.
         Dr. Callis, on the other hand, has a much less guarded view on sharing ideas. She believes that scientists should bounce their ideas off their colleagues in order to get feedback and suggestions that might help them better think through and understand their results. She does, however, believe in not revealing all the details to others. Her reasons for not sharing results are that there is not enough time for adequate discussion before a project is due or that the lab has too original an idea to share with colleagues, echoing Dr. Morand’s “white lie” concept. Dr. Callis points out that when ideas are shared, the scientists involved need to discuss who has “ownership” of the ideas and who should take credit for them to prevent a misunderstanding or presumed ethical breach. Dr. Callis has many professional collaborations that started from sharing data and methods with her colleagues. Each collaboration started with a definite agreement on the contribution each scientist would make and the credit that each scientist would receive at publication time.
         One way to combat the withholding of information is for scientists to share ideas and data through internal weekly laboratory meetings, where a member of the lab presents data and conclusions from their unique project to other members of the lab group. Dr. Callis sees the lab meeting as an essential way to understand what research is going on in the lab she runs. The meetings offer a non-competitive and protected forum to discuss data with colleagues. The lab meetings at the Chuang lab at the Cardiovascular Research Institute at the University California at San Francisco where gene expression in the lungs was studied (where I worked last summer) consisted of much of the same friendly brainstorming. At each meeting, one postdoc would present his projects and get feedback that addressed errors in analyzing data to help him complete the work faster and bring the data closer to the all important publication goal. The lab meetings were a form of quality control in the Chuang lab, maintaining the quality and integrity of the research in the diverse projects in the lab, without fear of intellectual theft and with a built-in corrective mechanism to research that might be going astray.
         The experienced competitive researchers trying to attract funding spend much of their time to writing grant proposals to support the research they do. The head researcher in the lab, called a principal investigator or PI, spends so much of her time writing grant proposals, progress reports, and papers, that she does not have very much time to do research for herself. Somewhat disdainfully, Dr. Morand calls the modern PI “a small-business administrator” and notes that during his postdoctoral fellowship, he did most of the research in the lab on his own, while his PI left him alone, unsupervised. Dr. Callis, who is a PI herself, admits she does not have enough time to do her own research and leaves that to her postdocs, graduate students, and lab technicians. She misses research and wishes she had more time than the hour she occasionally has now to do a small project. This situation leaves an interesting, circular quandary for PIs, who as experienced Ph.D.s do not have enough time to execute the research that they were trained for because of bureaucratic business. They have to cut back active participation in research, leaving the work that they care about to less experienced scientists, while they write proposals to keep their labs funded. According to Dr. Morand, most PIs leave their employees alone to do their research and do not act as the guiding teacher in the way that Dr. Callis does. The removal of PIs from the laboratory process can have negative consequences which can compromise results, when the advisor for those in the labs cannot be present during most of the day and cannot advise the budding researchers. This problem leaves the less experienced scientists to make decisions about how to treat data. Dr. Morand points out that many questions arise during the daily course of research and a scientist in training needs immediate guidance to make proper decisions and conclusions. Errors in data analysis and judgment happen when the PI is occupied with writing grant proposals and cannot provide guidance to the less experienced researchers.
         Devoted biochemists are trying to function within a less-than-ideal, difficult funding system to achieve meaningful and valid research. Critical understanding of the problems of the funding process by scientists like Dr. Callis and Dr. Morand can help avoid some of the problems and obstacles threatening the integrity of their work, but the imperfect funding system remains fully in place.


Callis, J. May 3, 2002. Personal Interview.

Morand, L. May 2, 2002. Personal Interview.

National Academy of Sciences Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. (1995) On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press.

Pravosudov, V. April 1, 2002. NPB 102 Lecture.