Research Ethics Roundup: Government shutdown’s impact on research, new revelations on Milgram experiments, and more

by Maeve Luthin, JD, Professional Development Manager

It’s been a challenging several days in the research world with uncertainty looming in the wake of the shutdown of the federal government last week. We offer our support to colleagues directly affected by this development and to those who are feeling its far-reaching impact. In this week’s Research Ethics Roundup, we provide information about the shutdown’s effects as well as a look back at two seminal events that helped shape the field.

Federal Government Shutdown: On Tuesday, October 1, following disagreement between Republicans and Democrats on a budget for the fiscal year, the United States federal government shut down. The impact on science and biomedical research is wide ranging: many ongoing studies have been put on hold, and agencies charged with both research and its oversight are largely closed. Below are links to contingency plans and announcements from some of the federal agencies and offices affected by the shutdown:

The Death and Afterlife of Thalidomide: In this Retro Report video from The New York Times, journalist Michael Winerip chronicles the story of thalidomide, a drug first marketed in Europe in the 1950s as a safe sleeping pill that was effective for treating morning sickness. After garnering widespread success, it was discovered that the medication caused severe birth defects. Thalidomide prompted a new era of regulatory reform by the FDA.

Looks Good on Paper: In China, research grants and promotions are awarded based on the number of articles a researcher publishes, rather than on the quality of the original research. This incentive structure fosters  a culture of misconduct, which has become a $150 million industry in itself. Investigations have unveiled fabricated research results, counterfeit scientific journals, and ghostwritten articles.

Stanley Milgram and the Uncertainty of Evil: As the fiftieth anniversary of the first published paper on Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiments approaches, new examinations of his work are giving insight into his methodology. Scholars, including Gina Perry, author of a recently published book on Milgram, have uncovered documentation that  raises questions about whether subjects believed they were actually hurting anyone. Perry also reports that researchers working with Milgram did not strictly adhere to the protocols documented by Milgram. Some commentators believe that these revelations do not change the value of Milgram’s research, while others believe that this new information dilutes his findings.