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Science Policy Around the Web – July 31, 2018

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By: Patrice J. Persad, PhD


source: pixabay

Science and Society

The ethics of computer science: this researcher has a controversial proposal

As a computer scientist with good intentions, it is only natural for him/her to be optimistic about the societal implications of his/her discoveries or findings. Unfortunately, this naivety, or lack of foresight, regarding secondary uses and repercussions of computer applications in/on everyday life can be damaging. As illustrations of unpremeditated consequences, automated tasks based on machine learning algorithms may be time efficient but steal jobs from millions of workers. Also, seemingly unlimited data storage capabilities and potent graphical processing unit (GPU) processing permit building prediction models of consumers’ behavior. This unrestricted data access and use can infringe on individuals’ privacy and question the voluntary nature of the consent process.

In order to magnify the importance of all computer applications’—notably, artificial intelligence’s (AI’s)—shortcomings in relation to society, Dr. Brent Hecht of Northwestern University has a plan. Instead of lauding their findings’ positive influences on society, computer science researchers must disclose negative implications of their research in publications and other press-related media.

The Future of Computing Academy (FCA), which Hecht oversees and which is a branch of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), promotes this duty of negative impact disclosure during the peer review process. Motivation for such a proposal stems from fostering accountability of researchers to the general public; this emphasizes the computer scientist’s role not as a mindless mass producer but as a mindful protector of the public’s welfare. Acknowledging the cons of works/applications pushes discussing plus implementing solutions. This deepening of accountability also revitalizes the public’s trust in the computer science community. As expressed by Hecht, here is what fellow computer scientists, as authors and peer reviewers, can do right now to contribute to these efforts of recognizing negative societal impacts:

  1. As an author, include a section entitled “Broader Impacts” or “Societal Impacts,” which discloses negative impacts in addition to positive impacts. Readers are not expecting the authors to be seers; in the context of pre-existing literature, discussing secondary uses with possible dastardly effects on citizens should be a start (if not sufficient).
  2. As a peer reviewer, outright ask, if unlisted in the submission, “What are the work’s negative societal impacts?” Stress that disclosing such information will not warrant rejection of the manuscript. (On the other hand, if negative impacts outweigh positive ones, funding agencies can use their discretion in supporting projects.)
  3. When communicating with the press, remember to mention negative societal impacts, and be prepared to address relevant questions/comments.

(Elizabeth Gibney, Nature)


Did a study of Indonesian people who spend most of their days under water violate ethical rules?

At the heart of any study involving human subjects, the potential for an ethical dilemma to arise is strong in the face of unclear and/or inaccessible research policies and regulations. Or, to put it bluntly, there churns the following question that torments the researcher when ethical matters cross over into legal waters: “Will I go to jail if I unknowingly breach research protocol (no matter if that protocol is under debate or revision)?” The ethical dilemma is imminent especially when principal investigators are foreign and from developed countries, but the proposed study’s focus is on indigenous populations in developing nations. Consider the research presented in the April 2018 Cell article “Physiological and Genetic Adaptions to Diving in Sea Nomads” by Dr. Melissa A. Ilardo and colleagues. The investigation’s results demonstrated that genetic variation in PDE10A is associated with a larger spleen size in the Bajau people, Indonesian “Sea Nomads” who have practiced extreme breath-hold diving for over a thousand years. The Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education (RISTEK) in Indonesia granted the team a permit to pursue the study. However, the bona fide ethical conflict stems from:

  1. local organizations’ claims that the team did not receive approval from at least one Indonesian research ethics commission/committee (see Council for Internal Organizations of Medical Science, CIOMS, guidelines).
  2. failure to procure approval from the Indonesian National Institute of Health Research and Development to transport human DNA samples out of Indonesia.
  3. lack of research involvement on the part of Indonesian scientists, especially geneticists.
  4. inadequate presentation of overall research results to study populations, including the Bajau, before publication.

In defense of Ilardo and colleagues, supporters point out that the Indonesian government has not reprimanded any team members for their research indiscretions, and Cell finds no issues with the group’s provided documents from said government. As for engaging more with Indonesian scientists regarding local research projects, Ilardo’s unanswered e-mails to several local professionals prior to data and specimen collection are proof of involvement attempted. In hindsight (or perhaps coincidence), RISTEK in early July organized an online portal where foreign researchers can easily gain access to all protocol/documentation for permits.

Foreign researchers are urged to realize that these presented ethical concerns—among them, governmental/national organizations’ approval, or consent, and transfer of biological specimens out of developing countries—are not trivial. Scientists should not be alarmed at just the prospects of jail time. Research cooperation with other nations’ institutions/entities can impact international relations between nations and local denizens’ trust in foreign researchers. Both international relations and trust influence the success of future research endeavors in developing and other nations.

(Dyna Rochmyaningsih, Science)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 31, 2018 at 4:56 pm