Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Paying the Cost to Be the Boss?

I'm currently the chair of my college's Institutional Review Board, the group that has to approve every experiment that involves human subjects on legal and moral grounds. As such I was brought into a conversation about a new requirement from the National Science Foundation that requires research ethics training for everyone connected to one of their grants. The NSF did not spell out what such training was to consist of and our administration thought it a good idea to come up with a campus-wide uniform approach. so, we did what administrators always have us do -- we had a meeting.

At this meeting one of the scientists was talking about one of her big fears, that one of the students working in her lab would sandbag her, that s/he would hold out on an idea, not sharing it with her, and take it with them to grad school or somewhere else. Her argument was that what happens in her lab is her science. She does all the training and background teaching, she sets the research agenda, secures the funding, oversees the experiments, and so all the science that happens their belongs to her. She would, of course, give co-authorship credit to the students, but any idea that arises in her lab deserves her name and to take it elsewhere is a breach of laboratory ethics.

On the one hand, she is making the scientific version of B.B. King's claim that in running the lab, she is paying the cost to be the intellectual boss. But it has an odd effect. It means she owns her lab assistants and their minds. Their brains are, in essence, lab equipment that belongs to her. That seems odd.

Do your ideas belong to someone else if you are working in their lab when you have the idea? Suppose your idea undercuts or contradicts the beliefs of the senior researcher and he or she not only thinks you are wrong, but tries to keep you from working on your idea in his or her lab until the evidence garners positive reactions from others? Would the senior researcher still deserve credit for the idea, should his or her name really be associated with the advance?