Ethics and Good Laboratory Practice in Scientific Research

Science fails without trust. Members of a lab must be able to trust each other that the batches of shared chemicals produced are as stated on the labels, equipment is being calibrated and maintained correctly, and their data is genuine. PIs must be able to trust the members of the lab that they are performing the research they are funded to do and that they are using the appropriate, legal methods using the appropriate resources. Other scientists must be able to trust that what is presented in scientific articles is the truth of what was performed and that the results have not been massaged or invented. The public, whose taxes pay for a lot of the research, must be able to trust that the funding is being used appropriately and not misappropriated.

When I started my PhD I had to attend some ethics courses. My PI made it a mandatory requirement for everyone in his group. I’m glad I attended the classes, not only because it helped clarify what the expected behavior was but because it gave me an opportunity to learn about philosophy. Returning to academia after having worked in the pharmaceutical industry, I was already well versed in scientific ethics and good laboratory (GLP) and good manufacturing practices (GMP), but attending these classes and hearing some of the questions other new PhD students asked, I realized there are some grey areas that new graduates are not so clear about.

In industry you can’t set foot in a lab until you’ve read the company standard operating procedures (SOPs) for labbook reporting requirements, usage of filesystems, storage of data and other standard GMP procedures that you need to adhere to. Likewise, every student, before starting any research, should be made to attend ethics classes and should be taught what we mean by good laboratory practices.

When I first started in industry, I was shocked that I’d made it through a whole undergraduate degree without being taught how to complete a labbook to GLP or GMP standards, nor how to write an SOP effectively. In some of my very first interviews attempting to get into the pharmaceutical industry as a fresh graduate, a skill I was repeatedly asked about was whether I had written SOPs and they always asked if I was familiar with standard laboratory practices. It wasn’t until in industry that it was hammered home to me how crucial accurate labbook reporting was, even down to reporting serial numbers on balances and calibration details.

In academia we are supposed to work to GLP so it is a little bit more lax than the pharmaceutical industry, where reporting has to be very stringent given that a drug you are working on if not handled or labelled properly could harm someone down the line. But nevertheless, I am shocked at how little training in GLP standards is given at the undergraduate level. It should therefore be no surprise that on starting graduate school there is often a lack of reporting in labbooks and also in understanding what standards one should be adhering to and what rules there are.

There has been much discussion on the importance of ethics in scientific research, such as that published by the NIH, but what I would like to see is professors with industrial backgrounds encouraged to hold classes dedicated to teaching industry standard practices and ethical performance of research.

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