Scientific endeavors can be described as nothing short of the proverbial term-‘Playing with fire’. Like fire, it is great potential and hazard rolled into one. But the one strong resemblance that leads me to this comparison is how we learn from it. A child would know not to get too close to his birthday candle once he burns himself. True, we get numerous warnings from our ever-watchful parents but nothing teaches us what the flame does like our first burn. It is true that experiences in the lab help us to learn from our mistakes but how do we avoid such ‘mistakes’? Most of the scientific guidelines we have today are a result of experiences (unfortunately most of them unpleasant ones) from the past. As we work presently under what we may think are ethical practices, we may be unbeknownst to us, writing a chapter about what not to do for the future generations to read and learn from. Simply put, we do not notice our pitfalls till the damage is done. So in science where the stakes are high and there is so much to lose, it does not make sense to sit and wait for the next mistake to happen or for someone to give us a slap on the wrist to learn our lessons. I am not implying that we should develop a God like ability to predict everything that can go wrong overnight. But in the grand scheme of things where we work with methods passed down to us from generations of study and practice, it is very easy to lose one’s voice and sense of right and wrong with the only explanation being ‘um, that’s how its always done and it works so…’.
When we thumb through cases of scientific exploitations or disasters, we often come across people who initially recognized ethical misgivings but failed to bring about changes till it was too late. So what is it that drives the ability to detect AND correct potential ethical issues? I can almost hear everyone that works in a lab go “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” collectively after having read this (At least that’s what I said to myself). Coming back to my question, what is it that is stopping us from going that extra mile to make sure what we are doing is ethically sound and safe? The answer according to me is-Apathy.
Apathy not only distances us away from the cause we are trying to contribute to but also from the ethical foundation from which we started building our study. When names become numbers and subjects become nothing but data points on a graph, ethical issues fade into a dusty old manual nobody looks at anymore. Because numbers are incapable of feelings, right? For example, we are aware of many heart-wrenching problems that we read about in the news, where ‘n’ number of people were left homeless, we sympathize with them and continue on with our morning coffee. But if something similar happens to just one person we personally interact with say a roommate or sibling, we act on the sympathy we feel. A man who has known hunger will be more willing to share his meal. It is an undeniable fact that we act more readily towards causes that are closer to home. Most of us, especially people who work in life sciences are trained to be desensitized to emotional aspects of our study, say pain or distress of our subjects in order to properly carry out our study. It may range from obtaining samples, performing surgery, subjecting them to stress etc. In fact this kind of distancing one’s self from such emotional properties makes sense because I wouldn’t want to get operated on by a sobbing and shaking surgeon.
So where do we stop? Where do we draw the line? What should we question and what should we simply accept? The line between being strong and being completely apathetic is very thin and is a tightrope that scientists constantly attempt to walk on. It is important to keep in mind that being immune to emotional triggers does not necessarily mean being blind to them. We have to be able to relate and feel every emotion that our research may involve. Yes, feel the pain that the mouse or rat or cat or monkey or human in your study is feeling. But do not let that pain make you weak and balk from scientific endeavors. In turn, let that pain make you strong enough to make sure that participation in science is not in vain. Let the pain drive you to do everything that you can to contribute to the cause you work on. Let that pain leave no room for careless mistakes. Let the pain give you courage to stand up and take the lead if you so much as even feel that some may be unethical. Let the pain be the catalyst that takes you from thought to action.
Easy to write about but very hard to practice right? It is the idea that one person cannot bring about change or solve ‘big problems’ that often discourages us from even attempting to even think about bringing about a change in an established system. But like all things that matter, action starts at home. The only way to at least make a dent in solving these monster problems is to start with, what may seem to you, a small effort. “We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something” said Mother Teresa. If we believe that apathy causes lack of action then can we not believe that our action can maybe stir empathy in someone else? All great reforms were a chain reaction that at some point of time were just one voice saying ‘this is not right’. So always remember that no action of ours ever goes unanswered (good or bad). Once we lose sight of why we do what we do, it doesn’t matter how good we are or what we do anymore. Keeping this in mind, we learn, we listen, we write, we skip lunches, we speculate, we imagine, we overdose on caffeine, we treat failure as the wisest friend, we feast on every significant p value, we burn the midnight oil and wake up again the next day and gladly do it all over again because we love what we do! Not only shall we try to walk that tightrope but we shall waltz across it my friend!