Research Ethics Roundup: Animal Research Favorability, a Hostile Laboratory Workplace, and more

This edition of Research Ethics Roundup covers the favorability of animal research among Americans, a hostile workplace in an empathy research lab, conflicts of interest in Vitamin D deficiency research, and plagiarism in breast cancer research.

Americans are divided over the use of animals in scientific research
Just under 50% of Americans favor the use of animals in research, continuing a slow decline in approval since the early part of this millennium. Research also shows a demonstrable gap in favorability by gender (more women oppose using animals in research than men) and by scientific expertise (those with more expertise tend to favor using animals more than those who oppose it).

“The latest survey results come at a time when the use of animals in scientific research continues to be a contentious issue that pits members of the scientific community against activists, and sometimes politicians, who say the practice is inhumane and unnecessary. Researchers, however, say the practice remains essential for developing treatments for diseases and conditions that include cancer, arthritis and HIV, and that they’re adhering to ethical guidelines.”

She’s the world’s top empathy researcher. But colleagues say she bullied and intimidated them
According to those who worked alongside her, prominent neuroscientist Tania Singer created a toxic, tense workplace environment that allegedly included discrimination against pregnant women. She is currently on a yearlong sabbatical from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

“But inside her lab, it was a very different story, eight former and current colleagues say in interviews with Science. The researchers, all but one of whom insisted on remaining anonymous because they feared for their careers, describe a group gripped by fear of their boss. “Whenever anyone had a meeting with her there was at least an even chance they would come out in tears,” one colleague says.”

The Man Who Sold America On Vitamin D—And Profited In The Process
Boston University Endocrinologist Dr. Michael Holick has been at the forefront of the proposition that Americans have “pandemic” levels of vitamin D deficiency. He has also received hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of his career from institutions heavily invested in the proliferation of treatments and tests for the condition, including pharmaceuticals giants, testing centers, and tanning-bed industry groups.

“The guidelines benefited the vitamin D industry in another important way. Unlike the National Academy, which concluded that patients have sufficient vitamin D when their blood levels are at or above 20 nanograms per milliliter, the Endocrine Society said vitamin D levels need to be much higher — at least 30 nanograms per milliliter. Many commercial labs, including Quest and LabCorp, adopted the higher standard.

Yet there’s no evidence that people with the higher level are any healthier than those with the lower level, said Dr. Clifford Rosen, a senior scientist at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute and co-author of the National Academy report.”

Prominent health policy researcher plagiarized colleagues’ work, Dartmouth investigation finds
Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, a Dartmouth health care policy scholar, has been investigated for research misconduct regarding a widely-cited paper he published in the New England Journal of Medicine about breast cancer screenings leading to problematic overdiagnosis. The Dartmouth investigation upheld accusations of plagiarism from Dartmouth colleague Samir Soneji and UCLA researcher Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez.

“Soneji and Beltrán-Sánchez said the two papers are ‘identical or virtually identical … in numerous key aspects,’ such as the idea and motivation for the research, and the analytic approach. For instance, at the workshop attended by Welch, Soneji explained he was using the size of tumors, and how those change over time, to measure the effect of screening mammography. After the workshop, Soneji wrote in his 2016 complaint email, he and Welch met, and Welch said he ‘had never thought of’ some of Soneji’s research ideas. Yet, according to Soneji, his ideas were incorporated into the NEJM paper.”