A new, informal study shows that scientists may be self-censoring to avoid controversial research. This article presents this as fairly categorically bad, implying that those raising the controversies are stifling academic freedom and intellectual endeavors. But isn’t it good if our scientists are feeling pressure to stop and think about whether the advantages of their research are really worthwhile? Am I supposed to feel bad that “Others said they have given up experiments on dogs – traditional objects of medical research – to avoid the wrath of animal rights activists.”? Or this statement:
Today, Blass said, ethics overseers are unlikely to allow anything that involves tricking a research subject. As a result, even though he’d like to follow up on Milgram’s work, he said he censors himself by not bothering to try.
Putting aside the fact that ethics boards do allow trickery or misleading a subject so long as the methodology is well-reviewed to ensure no harm to the subject, these complaints sound frighteningly close to researchers lamenting that if the world understood how important their work was, they would see that risking the well-being of a couple of subjects was a necessary risk. We have ethics review boards to ensure that these decisions are made with greater objectivity than is possible in an individual with a passion for their own work. As a generalization, I would suggest that a research proposal with so little methodological justification that one wouldn’t bother even proposing it from fear of controversy is a research proposal in need of more work.