A Case of Good Ethics: It’s Not All about Me
When collaborating does not make good ethical sense
To solve many complex problems, collaboration is a necessity. However, choosing the right partners can pose dilemmas, including ethical ones. Some partners may enable the work to be done in a timely and productive manner, but the cost of compromising values may be high.
Tired of working long hours with limited progress in their research, a group of scientific researchers who knew of one another came together to talk about developing a collaboration that would enable important discoveries to happen more quickly. Each scientist believed that working together would enhance the work—more people might lead to more progress, and certainly working with others from different laboratories may motivate more creative thinking. As an example, working on a vaccine to treat a rare strand of flu, one that particularly affected the elderly, was not going to progress quickly enough through the traditional “silo” approach in which individual scientists or groups control findings until they are ready to patent them. Moreover, for this group of scientists, such a secretive approach was not consistent with the personal or professional values of the individual members in the group. Rather, this group wanted a collaborative laboratory, in which scientists would be sharing approaches, knowledge and findings. But this type of collaboration is costly, and ensuring its longevity was by no means a certainty. Additionally, the participants needed funding right away.
In a short period of time, the group was successful in securing grants from various sources. By pooling together connections with individual funders, the group raised about half of what they felt they needed for the collaboration to be up and running. One avenue worth further exploration featured venture capitalists, who might be interested in investing because of the potential to make a lot of money.
In discussions with the venture capitalists, the research group stressed how important it was to share their work, discoveries, data, and expertise with researchers, clinicians, and physicians around the world. The scientists felt a sense of obligation to do what they could to promote reliable and rapid solutions to this flu strain and other diseases. The venture capitalists thought this was an unusual but interesting notion.
Lawyers were hired to draw up all the agreements required to launch this collaborative laboratory. Members of the research group reviewed the agreements but learned, to their dismay, the following condition: the venture capitalists insisted that all work generated by the company would be proprietary. The idea of sharing what they developed may have met the ideals of the participating scientists but would not fly in the corporate world.
The research group faced a dilemma. The money needed to sustain their work and possibly lead to significant discoveries was within grasp. Many people had put in a lot of time and effort to come on board. Various funders had already committed to grants over the next few years. Difficult conversations occurred within the research group, taking into account the various factors at play. With this funding the group could forge ahead with their own research, but others involved in comparable research and development efforts would not benefit.
What should the research group do?
Ultimately the group decided that they could not sign the agreements. They would forgo this amazing opportunity. The group firmly believed they were making the right decision—they could not compromise on their scientific values. Allowing their work, knowledge, and materials to be shared and used by others was not just one of their values—it was their guiding principle. They agreed that because they could find another funder who would support their mission fully, it may take more time to build a collaboration, but no one would suffer as a consequence.
Collaboration is a virtual necessity in today’s world: particularly when the collaboration seeks to solve a complex problem. The research group brought together the right players who could contribute to the initiative in ways that each could not do alone. But in doing so they would have to bracket their fundamental values: sick people would have to wait longer for a treatment that could otherwise help them. That was not an option the scientists were prepared to choose.