Research Organizations Grow Ever More Attuned to Their Responsibilities to the Larger Public

A half century ago, in a seminal essay that remains required reading at business schools, celebrated economist Milton Friedman laid out his singular idea of social responsibility.

There is, said Friedman, “one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, that is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

But Friedman did not have the last word.

The social unrest of the 1960s made for a turbulent decade. Conventional ways of doing business were dislodged from orbit, or left tilting. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1961, giving birth to the environmental movement. Corporate America was fair game; comedians poked fun at the Establishment, joking that business ethics was an oxymoron. CSR—corporate social responsibility—entered the business vernacular.

And medicine, which enjoys a unique social contract, was hardly immune. The social climate demanded greater accountability; institutional review boards imposed the first ethics review for research in the 1970s. The medical industry began to wrap ethics into its business strategy.

The Human Genome Project raised the ethical bar still higher. Health care costs climbed, too, right in step with an uptick of media reports about misconduct that chipped away at medicine’s social license. The scientific community still struggles to sell its promise to a wary public, even as the inchoate, genetically driven approach tightens its grip on the traditional methodologies of medicine, industry and agriculture—an enterprise collectively called bioscience.

While Freidman’s bottom-line sentiments still prevail in many quarters, his rigid conception of SR is generally passé. There is, increasingly, a new coin of the realm—a set of socially responsible behaviors that embrace a more humane global perspective, made manifest through bioethics, environmental and energy initiatives, community outreach, transparency and data sharing, safety and security, affordability and access, inclusion, employee rights, and other benchmarks.

And as the social responsibility paradigm matures, lab managers and bench practitioners realize greater opportunity to act on it.

At Eli Lilly and Company, Assistant Senior Analytical Chemist Julie O’Brien recently finished a summer camp program—bubble experiments and all—for young children in an economically challenged area of Indianapolis. “It never occurred to me that most of these kids had never played with bubbles before. The joy they experienced was just amazing.”

“Science outreach programs allow our scientists to remember why they went into science in the first place: the joy of discovery and learning something new,” she said.


Millennium’s David Lichter demonstrates research techniques to members of the community at the annual Cambridge Science Festival.

“More than ever before, scientists at the bench are more attuned to the responsibilities they have to the larger public,” says Mark Frankel, director of the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

“There is a big world outside the laboratory doors,” says Frankel, “and the successful lab manager must be able to ‘manage’ public expectations, whether held by an employer eager to launch a new product or by the local community seeking a solution to nearby beach erosion. Such are the social responsibilities of those running the nation’s research labs.”

David Lichter, senior research associate in Millennium’s molecular medicine group, is a leader of an employee committee that helps bring green, sustainable programs to the company, such as reducing lab consumption of plastics and other biohazardous materials. He also helps organize events at the annual Cambridge Science Festival, giving educational demonstrations to visitors from Greater Boston. “We bring microscopes and show kids what cancer cells look like compared to normal cells and what we do at Millennium, which is develop drugs to treat cancer.”

Some firms plotting a socially responsible course of action do not empower their R&D personnel to act on it, so opportunity doesn’t always trickle down to the bench science level. “Most of our social responsibility initiatives are done at the management level,” said spokesperson Beth Chandler of Archer Daniels Midland Company, where they do things “The ADM Way,” laden with social value.

Frankel is a believer in the power of the crowd to drive SR—the mutually reinforcing effect of professional organizations that encourages all members to improve ethical performance.

The American Chemistry Council encompasses roughly 90 percent of the national chemical manufacturing capacity. Member companies are required to participate in Responsible Care, a program whose objectives include enhanced product stewardship and security, integration with sustainable development, and improved industry reputation.

Frankel says scientists become oriented toward SR during their education. “The most important social responsibility of the academic community is to produce the next generation of scientists, many of whom will work for industry….We expect these university labs to produce very good scientists who are also knowledgeable about the ethical prescriptions associated with the work they do.

“There’s the greater expectation that universities will be more transparent” absent “proprietary claims that industry can make,” he says.

Exactly what constitutes socially responsible scientific behavior remains open to interpretation.

Some construe it as going above and beyond what the law requires. Others think SR is just a question of adhering to mandates, arguing that the FDA and its global counterparts are such forceful regulators that ethical behavior equates with compliance. Still others narrow it down to the pursuit of discovery and innovation that benefits society.

Then there are skeptics who assert that SR initiatives serve nicely to cloak misbehavior, or divert attention. Those who artfully spin their environmental practices are sometimes said to engage in “greenwashing.”

“Perhaps the most serious challenge for consultants,” said Mildred Cho of Stanford University, a leading authority on bioethics consulting, “is that researchers will use them to gain an imprimatur of morality.”

We aim for transparency and lots of collaboration,” says lab manager Mara Bryan, who harnesses assorted research teams, united in a common cause to develop alternative energy sources at the Energy Biosciences Institute in California.

At EBI, which draws upon British Petroleum PLC and the University of California, Berkeley for support, teams share resources including space, equipment and supplies. “EBI is a very diverse place, with people from all cultures and backgrounds,” says Bryan. “Researchers are always sharing ideas and problem solving.”

Energy Biosciences Institute undergraduate researcher Deepti Purjare explains her data collection results to EBI Lab Manager Mara Bryan, as graduate students Padma Gunda (second from left) and Jon Galazka (right) observe. (Photo courtesy of Susan Jenkins, EBI)

While more companies clearly take pains to articulate the social value of their research, they have different sets of reasons for doing so.

For starters, SR initiatives are a talent magnet. As competition for skilled researchers intensifies, bench scientists are finding greater cultural comfort in organizations with pronounced social values.

In a recent poll of nearly 4,000 life scientists, workers expressed an affinity for employers that demonstrate SR. As reported in Science magazine’s 2008 survey of the most desirable industry employers, SR was one of the leading drivers mentioned by respondents. Overall, it was among the three leading drivers for 15 of the 20 firms with the best reputations in 2008.

Millennium “regularly receives inquiries during the hiring process as to what kinds of corporate social responsibility programs we have in place,” said Shannon Murphy, senior staffing specialist with the company.

“More and more, our HR department tells us that as they screen potential candidates, they are being asked about our corporate responsibility and what Lilly is doing to be a good corporate citizen,” said Carole Puls, senior corporate communications associate for Lilly.

“The millennials [the highly desirable demographic born between 1982 and 2001] in particular seemed to be focused on corporate responsibility,” said Puls. “They want to know about our report card.”

At DuPont, there is “increasing alignment of our R&D efforts to initiatives that do and will have a big impact on global sustainability,” said Melinda Hardie, DuPont Science & Technology spokesperson.

“Through ongoing coaching and attention, lab managers make sure the programs we resource are consistent with our overall goals and that our new scientists and engineers quickly learn what’s important to us in product design.

“Then there is a role in coaching their teams on specific objectives of each program and the approaches to achieve those objectives…Lab managers help the teams make sure that they design for sustainability from the earliest stages.”

Up-and-coming nanoscientists evidence similar concern for the common good, according to Dietram Scheufele, Department of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison, who co-authored a study of “the first nationally recognizable assessment of attitudes and regulatory views among leading U.S. nanoscientists.”

Data from the nanoscientist survey shows “that more than half of all scientists ‘strongly or somewhat’ agree that ‘[s]cientists should pay attention to the wishes of the public, even if they think citizens are mistaken or do not understand their work,’” said Scheufele.

“I do think that we’re entering an age when scientists are increasingly aware of the social and political implications of their work. Many scientists are not just open to the idea of interacting with the public, but see that as an obligation. This increased interest in public reactions to their work—and its policy implications—is especially noticeable among science graduate students,” added Scheufele.

Another benefit of SR in today’s hard times is cost-effectiveness. “As we see this shift in the economy, more and more corporations are seeking to fill that gap with their philanthropy, perhaps tapping additional assets in their company,” said Puls.

“Based on a study Deloitte & Touche did, published in Talent Management magazine, 77 percent of companies believe their volunteer programs help them to improve their business practices, and nearly half said aligning their giving programs, including volunteering, was the biggest change in their philanthropy,” said Puls.

Last but not least, SR is good PR.

“We’re having some serious problems in the relationship between science and society,” said Alan Lesher, chief executive of AAAS, in 2007, explaining that as scientific misconduct and conflicts of interest undermine public support, so too does stem cell research and cloning initiatives conflict with values many hold dear. Billy Tauzin, head of PhRMA, has pulled no punches about the gap between the industry and consumers.

Campaigns that demonstrate organizational social values help offset negative perceptions in the court of public opinion, and provide ammunition for public relations battles against issue advocacy groups and activists.

And they have the added value of being readily comprehensible by the general public, which is often ambivalent about the consequences of bioscientific technologies that many perceive to be “playing God.”

According to the results of a 2007 poll published in The Scientist, lab practitioners take a generally dim view of how scientific communications are processed by lay public upon dissemination.

Interestingly, bench scientists are inclined to fault scientific communicators who don’t properly “frame” messages to connect with target audiences. Only 15 percent of “practicing lab researchers” polled think “scientists do a good job of communicating complex technical issues to the public,” and more than half the respondents believe “the most important thing is accommodating the message to suit the audience.”

Bioethics is clearly the most controversial aspect of the nascent SR paradigm, and often problematic for researchers.

Besides the difficulty of establishing benchmarks in a quicksilver endeavor such as biotech, the industry must keep other balls in the air— contending with stakeholders at odds over the social, ethical and political implications of bioresearch, and working on other fronts to invigorate eroded consumer trust and shaky investor confidence.

In this uncertain climate, bioethics consultants proliferate. But even they are controversial, as the industry struggles to come to grips with their role and responsibilities. Are consultants hired guns, public guardians, or whistleblowers?

In 2006, AAAS released results of a study that provides a snapshot of the interactions between the industry and bioethics consultants.

“There was not widespread use of these consultants,” said Frankel of AAAS, “but there did seem to be a great deal of satisfaction on the part of companies” who retained bioethic consultants, and the consult generally “had an impact on their decision-making and policies.”

From the AAAS study, the following are the types of issues on which companies received advice and the number of companies reporting:

  • Data collection, confidentiality, storage and/or disclosure (9)
  • Relationships with media, customers, state/federal agencies or general public (8)
  • Potentially controversial research or product development (7)
  • Product safety (7)
  • Conflicts of interest (7)
  • Clinical trials (6)
  • Making products more beneficial and/or accessible to disadvantaged groups or low-income countries (5)
  • Post-marketing phase of product (4)
  • Potential environmental impact (2)

“The biotech industry and the life science world have been extremely cognizant of the need for socially responsible science and behavior,” said Michael Werner, a partner with expertise in biotechnology at law firm of Holland & Knight, “and this drills down to individual scientists and lab managers” who often engage the public.

Cho, associate director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, recommends the flexibility of a team-based approach to address ethical issues in benchside research.

“It is increasingly clear that a reactive bioethics… is not optimal,” wrote Cho in “Strangers at the Benchside: Research Ethics Consultation,” which reviews her pilot study. (Among the findings, lab researchers worry that ethics consultants lack requisite scientific expertise.)

“The accumulated wisdom practice for clinical ethics consultations holds several lessons for a benchside ethics consultation service,” she wrote. “One is to expect disagreement.… Commentators have objected to the role of the stranger at the bedside as an unwanted, unnecessary and undesirable intrusion.…Other critics have questioned the independence of most institutionally based ethics consultation.…”

Cho concluded with a short list of “unresolved questions” concerning the scope of a consult service, team composition, a consultant’s core competencies, conflicts of interest, and “the extent to which the service should be a scholarly activity to advance ethics or social science.”