Cave Johnson is almost ready to start a new study in his secret underground facility. The founder of Michigan-based technology company Aperture Science has invented a portal gun that allows people to teleport to various locations. Now he and his colleagues want to see if they can make portals appear on previously unsuitable surfaces with a new “conversion gel” containing lunar dust. “It can be toxic. We are not sure,” he wrote in a recent research proposal.
To test the gel, Johnson plans to recruit orphans, the homeless, and the elderly. They’ll get $60, a compensation he believes is well worth the risk of his skin shedding, death due to an AI guide becoming sentient, or worse.
None of this is real, of course: Johnson is the villain of the popular video game. Portal—but the makeshift ethics review board that evaluated his study was. At a Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research conference held online last month, attendees of the session “Mad Science to the Test: Real Ethical Problems with Fictional Scientists” had serious concerns with Johnson’s research. Would the participants’ data be secure and anonymous? Would the team of minions also include some minions? And, most importantly, would there be cake?
The session moderators didn’t just target Johnson. They asked their audience of 450 virtual assistants to rate other fictional mad scientists as well, voting on whether an institutional review board (IRB), a body of experts a research institution uses to assess whether proposals are ethically sound, should approve their proposals. protocols.
Science sat down with two of the panelists, operations manager Lisa Rigtrup of the IRB at the University of Utah, and compliance analyst Amanda Sly of the US Office for Human Research Protection. mad scientists can teach us about the ethics of actual research.
Q: Why hold this “mad scientist” panel?
Lisa Rigrup: I’m some kind of Chandler [from Friends] from my group because everyone knows I have a job but they don’t know what I do. I’ve explained it several times and they still don’t get it. This “mad scientist” concept is something you can explain to just about anyone to some degree.
To solve the problems, I went to my local comic convention and put up this fake IRB panel for the people who were in attendance. It was received quite well. I think this format is good for making the world of IRB ethics fun and doing it in a way that expands people’s minds.
foxy amanda: I think the pop culture side is the hook. This format could be used to really reach almost any age group, especially if you want to go to a primary school and teach them a little bit about research ethics.
Q: Do you really see these kinds of crazy proposals in your day jobs?
LR: For most researchers, it is quite rare to find someone who is completely naive and wants to participate in a research study. There is a lot of training before you can send us a proposal. But I’ve seen protocols where a researcher wants to do fake injections for no real reason or cut someone’s skin as part of a placebo group. Sometimes these forms have pages and pages of risks, with no clear benefits. I’m just saying, “Who would sign up for this?”
WHAT: Every once in a while we see the ones where you say, “You’re not a mad scientist, but there’s some arrogance there.”
Q: In one of your examples, Dr. Horrible, creator of the Dr. Horrible Sing-Along blog, and The SimpsonsResident mad scientist Professor Frink wants to help make a freeze ray that stops people in their tracks. They claim that it could be used to prevent children or animals from running out into the street, or guests from leaving the party. But if a bad guy gets it, he could use it to take over the world. How do IRBs handle these “dual-use” investigations that could be dangerous in the wrong hands?
WHAT: The IRB must consider only those risks and benefits that may result from the research, and must not consider the possible long-term effects of applying the knowledge gained in the research. It’s really about the risk to those involved in the research. You can’t always anticipate that this lovely cancer drug you’re approving could be used as a poison, so the IRB isn’t required to go that far in its assessments.
LR: Sometimes the opposite is true. When we receive funding from the Veterans administration or the Department of Defense for military projects, they often find more national applications for it. For example, here some tests were being carried out with an exoskeleton. You get into this thing and it looks like some aliens. You know they intended it to be for super soldiers. And then I was watching the local news a few months ago, and here’s this exoskeleton at the local airport and they’re using it to help move heavy luggage. In fact, I really enjoy when research turns out to be something that improves the general public.
Q: Another example centers on Catherine Halsey, a scientist in the first-person shooter. aura. She proposes surgically enhancing 6-year-olds with armor, neural interfaces, and other technology to give them combat advantages against a theoretical alien attack. How do you weigh a distant risk against the actual risk faced by research participants?
LR: We wish there was some calculator where we could plug these things in and just get our risk-benefit ratio. But the human element is fundamental. That’s why we have groups of people looking at these things: it’s about risks that affect people’s lives, and it’s about research that will be used to make change in the world.
WHAT: It also comes down to the diversity of the boards, which include five scientists and one non-scientist. If you’re reviewing a specific type of research, you need to have the right experience on that board to understand what’s going on. You don’t want an IRB that only has engineers reviewing an oncology study or vice versa.
Q: What was the hardest part of presenting all of this in a serious way?
LR: I don’t have a poker face.
WHAT: I definitely told myself to keep my composure. Do not laugh.