“It must be hard,” I thought, “having to preface every answer to ‘What do you do?’ with ‘So, uh, here’s the thing.’”
VanderKraats confirmed this suspicion when I spoke with him after the panel. He said that there are a lot of misconceptions about his employer, and that he’s had a few awkward conversations in which he’s had to basically explain that his job—developing algorithms to analyze data about phenotypes and genetics—is not tantamount to throwing baby bunnies into a wood chipper.
“I think we contribute positively to the world,” VanderKraats told me, “but sometimes I still hesitate a little to reveal that in a conversation, because you’re not really sure if the person on the other end is an opponent.”
The article actually touches on a very important ethical dilemma than many scientists face: what do you do when, along with some bonafide positive contributions that it's making to the economy and to society, your company is also clearly engaging in some activities that would make even the most ethically hardened soul cringe? News about DuPont, Pfizer and a host of other corporations during the last few years has not done much to bolster the public's faith in these entities.
Tragically though, the real good that some of these organizations have done along with the sheer complexity and challenges of the research that they are engaging in are two themes that somehow don't seem to filter as much to the lay public. No matter how extensively you may philosophize about why drug discovery is hard, the two main questions which you get asked when you mention you do pharmaceutical research are almost always, "Why are drugs so damn expensive?" and "Why do drugs have so many damn side effects"? That latter question is usually a good cue to transition into a succinct explanation of the scientific challenges of drug discovery: how even the basic science of the process is still woefully under informed, how if we knew how to get rid of side effects, we would with every fiber in our being, how the sheer risk and attrition in drug development can kill a compound during the end game, even after it has jumped over every single obstacle, how drug hunters need to have an appetite for risk that surpasses MacArthur's. By this time though, you are hoping that the person grilling you has not moved on to the next target of his or her outrage.
There's no simple answer to this dilemma. But one of the pieces of wisdom that emerges from thinking more about the issue is that it's almost impossible to work for any institution that does not flirt with morally questionable practices.
After all, nearly every employer is perceived as evil by someone. If you’re in the chemical industry, you’re poisoning the world. If you’re developing medicines, you’re a shill for Big Pharma. If you’re an engineer at an energy company, you hate pelicans. If you’re in academia, you’re sneering at the peasants from your ivory tower. NASA wastes taxpayer money. Meteorologists are always wrong. Every form of energy production sucks. Military scientists love war. Mathematicians are superfluous. None of our results can be replicated, we’re all drawing unsurprising conclusions, and none of us would allow moral concerns to interfere with results.
I’d like to think that scientists have an ethical obligation to ensure that our work does no harm. It’s a credo I stole from the medical students. But at the same time, we can’t be held responsible for every decision our employers make—especially because most of us have very little power at our places of employment.
Indeed. Institutions after all are run by human beings, and human beings are flawed, and some are downright evil. I think that up to a fairly large margin of error, you can't be held accountable for what some of these human beings in your organization are doing as long as you are not complicit in their actions or have no knowledge of their activities. Where one draws the lines in this regard is hard to pinpoint and is an individual decision, although the extremes as usual are easy to identify: if I worked for a company whose senior management regularly ate babies on live television I probably won't have qualms turning in my resignation right away. Similarly if an organization has a serial record of engaging in unethical financial or environmental behavior combined with a shockingly blatant disrespect for its employees' well-being, it wouldn't be hard to strike that organization off your potential employer list.
Anything between those two extremes is up for debate though, especially at the lower end of the scale. So what does one do when asked why his or her organization was recently indicted for poisoning the waters of that pristine river that flows through your town? I think the article has it right in that whatever the reply is, it needs to be honest and balanced. I would be the first one to admit that like other corporations, drug companies do sometimes engage in patently unethical practices. I would make sure to make it known that I strongly believe that those who encourage such practices should be prosecuted proportionately. But I also would equally emphasize the countless lives that have been saved by drugs, the incredible, often heartbreaking complexity of the basic science of drug discovery and in fact the great positive contribution of chemistry and related sciences as a whole to our modern way of life. Or I could just do a George Whitesides.