With great power comes great responsibility – Following the rules of Science
Updated: Dec 14, 2019
Last Saturday, I received an email from my mother. She had just seen a video on YouTube and wanted to know my opinion on it. Watching the video, I could see people catching frogs and snakes in a South American tropical rain forest and then taking photos of the animals, allegedly for a conservation project. None of the people was wearing gloves. Not even the young man who injected formalin into a snake for taxonomic purposes. And yet, amphibians vanishing in Panama are a textbook example of the devastating impacts a pathogen (such as the chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) can have on biodiversity. And formalin is known to be carcinogenic. I was quite disturbed by what I had seen and I started a (long) discussion with the person who posted the video. This discussion was about good scientific practices, rules, laws, and responsibilities in science.
We live in a world of rules and laws
For scientists it is quite obvious that our world, the Universe, is made up of rules, and that our societies are built on rules, that is to say: lists of dos and don’ts. The better we understand these rules and conform to them, the easier it is for us to live together. Some rules and laws cannot be avoided and we usually learn it the hard way, through bruises and burns, caused by gravity (when we fall) or combustion (when we touch a flame). Others are left up to our good will but are difficult to circumvent. For example, I can decide not to comply with traffic regulations when I drive, however, unless I am driving in a desert, I will likely put myself or other people in danger rather quickly.
Best scientific practices: security, hygiene and ethics
Depending on our profession, there are also rules and laws professional need to follow for their own safety, as well as for the public safety. Strictly observing cold chain integrity is mandatory for professionals in the food sector. The medical professions must respect rules, most often related to hygiene and confidentiality. No one would like to undergo surgery by a surgeon who does not wear sterile gloves and has not gone through a lengthy process of cleaning… (check here).
The general public often ignores that researchers must also comply with rules in their daily practice. As researchers in ecology and natural sciences, we are allowed to do many things that private people cannot do. In the Project P³, we manipulate protected species, we drive and walk in restricted areas such as in National Parks, use hazardous chemicals such as formalin to preserve plankton, etc. However, with great power comes great responsibility (1), and of course, we first need to ask for - and obtain – many specific permits to do our fieldwork, and we need to train in e.g. animal handling, chemical handling and ethics. If we want to bring amphibians to the laboratory and keep them in captivity an additional permit and training course is required. The authorities, through such permits, can ensure that the animals will be housed, fed, and handled, in an appropriate manner.
In France, all local amphibians are protected. It is forbidden to catch them (or their eggs), even for a pedagogical purpose. Unfortunately, many school teachers do ignore this regulation (in good faith), as they are not aware of such laws. This is why internet is full of “pedagogical experiments” for which amphibian eggs are brought to the class to observe metamorphosis (one example), breaking several laws while teaching pupils.
A difficulty for scientists is that laws can be different from one country to another, notably because protection of the people and the environment has various considerations worldwide. Because scientists believe in self-regulation, the international scientific community has developed and formulated a list of good scientific practices. In ecology, this means that we do everything possible to avoid environmental contamination by chemicals and pathogens, among others. E.g. here you can find a procedure to clean your equipment, shoes etc. from pathogens after ending fieldwork at a specific site in different languages: English, French, German.
Interestingly, some countries went further and integrated some of the best scientific practices in the law. For example, in Germany, the scientist in charge of the laboratory must control the laboratory, machines and chemicals, and every colleague before he/she starts working in there. The responsible person provides a list of dos and don’ts for their own and their colleagues safety. For example, one of the basic rules in laboratories is that we are not allowed to bring in food or a bottle of drinking water to avoid passive ingestion of harmful substances. Indeed, working in a laboratory can be dangerous, and I know what I am talking about since an (old) centrifuge exploded in my face when I was a PhD student… (an example can be checked out here).
To come back to the video I mentioned above, you may now better understand why I was horrified when I saw a young man manipulating both chemical (formalin) and ecological (amphibians and their pathogens) hazards without gloves. He not only endangered himself, but also can cause considerable harm to the amphibians, which have a very sensitive skin, which itself has several life-saving functions. He may also have propagated pathogens from one individual amphibian to another, spreading the disease locally and if not cleaning himself properly even regionally.
I here only touched on one facet of best scientific practices, the more practical ones and probably the easier to explain to the general public. But there are many more, including how to deal with writing grant proposals, to organize data collection, run data analysis, publishing of results, and to solve conflicts of interests. If you are interested in these latter ones, I can only recommend reading the excellent book by C. Neal Stewart Jr. Research Ethics for Scientists – A Companion for students (Wiley-Blackwell Ed.).
1 if you are interested in this quote, such as where it comes from, you will find more information there: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/07/23/great-power/