The impact of self-interest in scientific research: Lessons from Cantor’s Dilemma

by Nicholas Spetko, Membership Services Intern

The portrayal of scientific research and research ethics in popular media can offer considerable insight. To reflect on some of the lessons offered, PRIM&R staff have spent the summer reading and watching classic books, movies, and television shows that have generated conversation and debate around issues related to research ethics. Over the next several weeks, they will share their reflections here, so join us as we explore popular representations of the research world. 

In this week’s installment of our summer series looking at depictions of research ethics in popular media, I’ll explore the contemporary significance of Cantor’s Dilemma, a novel written more than 20 years ago by Carl Djerassi. The protagonist of the novel, an established scientist named Isidore Cantore, has developed a revolutionary theory of tumorigenesis and an experimental test to prove it. In his race to win the Nobel Prize, he carefully orchestrates the publication and the results of his young research fellow Dr. Jeremiah Stafford.

Throughout Cantor’s Dilemma, self-interest, rather than scientific inquiry, propels the researchers forward. As articulated by Cantor: “But people don’t take on such time-consuming duties solely out of noblesse oblige—some kind of intellectual philanthropy, you might say. There’s always some element of self-interest.” The manipulation and deceit of the characters is accepted as a norm of scientific practice and the only way to truly succeed.

In the past month alone, we have seen numerous blogs and articles about the consequences of this sort of environment, both in academic and corporate settings. Whether it is the rush to publish new findings which lead to questions of accuracy, or the challenge of fostering transparency across corporate-initiated clinical studies, it is clear that this high-stakes environment puts enormous pressure on all researchers to perform. An urgent interest in either profitability or publication fuels a need to establish scientific ownership of ideas, with the Supreme Court case involving Myriad Genetics being the most recent example. Yet perhaps ultimately, the consequence of this intensely competitive research culture is that it can betray and prevent an ideal of true scientific collaboration and therefore impede scientific progress.  While more than 20 years have passed since its publication, the story chronicled in Cantor’s Dilemma remains a relevant missive for understanding how self-interest can cast a shadow on science.