Is whistleblowing in science really necessary? Yes, replied presenters at a session at the BA Festival of Science organised on 8 September by a UK coalition of the four scientists' trade unions (AUT, IPMS, MSF, and NATFHE) called the Science Alliance. Val Ellis of the alliance explained that the unions are "very concerned about the trend to commercialisation" in science, which they believe is putting pressure on scientists to be less than straightforward in presenting their results. But if you plan to blow the whistle on your employer, presenters agreed, plan ahead and get help.

Commercialisation is an important part of the humanitarian mission of the Medical Research Council (MRC), says Nick Winterton, executive director of the MRC. Winterton believes pure research won't improve human health if scientists simply publish their results and hope that something will come of it. But the medical researcher's new dual role as both investigator and salesman often places them in difficult ethical situations. Andrew Millar, for one, shot to notoriety when he blew the whistle on his employer, British Biotech, in 1998. "The boardroom is an environment where financial considerations are likely to outweigh ethical ones," he told conference participants. "Once you become a businessman, as a scientist you make it very difficult for yourself to take clear, ethical decisions."

Factoid

The 1998 Public Interest Disclosure Act is "the most far-reaching legislation in the world," says Guy Dehn of Public Concern at Work. The act has gone a long way to protect those who raise legitimate concerns about misconduct and it applies to almost every worker in the UK.

Ph.D. students, however, are considered nonemployees and are not covered by the act.

The MRC tries to help. "We have been proactive in establishing an environment and ethos where those funding and doing science know what is expected of them," Winterton tells Next Wave. The council has, for example, published a guide that outlines what they believe constitutes "Good Research Practice" and MRC team leaders are required to include this as part of the research training of junior scientists. There is also a procedure in place for dealing with allegations of misconduct. Winterton says the new procedure has already been used in "five or six cases."

But often the dilemmas pit individual researchers against their employers and funding agencies. It is not an easy situation to be in. "For an individual scientist to stand up against the owners of a company is a difficult thing," says Millar, "but there are times when it is necessary and we all have a responsibility to do it." And Open University biologist Steven Rose points out that, these days, conflicts of interest are likely to arise even in the university sector. When they do, youth is not well served. Many senior people within universities now have directorships and patents under their belts. "So senior management tend to be protected," says Rose, whilst "younger people have their careers and very jobs on the line."

So what should you do if you are not happy with the way research is conducted in your lab or department? "If you're going to blow the whistle, get an outside opinion first," says Barrister Guy Dehn, the director of Public Concern at Work (PCW), a charity that advises people who are concerned about wrongdoing and who are unsure whether or how to raise the concern. It's far harder for an organisation such as the PCW to help if you've gone it alone to start with and quite possibly handled it the wrong way.

Where to go for help

Brian Martin's Web site carries links to useful leaflets and contact details of organisations across the world which offer advice and support to would-be whistleblowers.

Former physicist Brian Martin agrees that having your strategy worked out before you blow the whistle is key. "Scientists are not trained to speak out and enter the political fray," says Martin, the international director of the support group Whistleblowers Australia. "I've seen numerous cases where scientists have been done over rather badly essentially because they were naïve." And he warns that, in his experience, "official channels don't work." Instead, potential whistleblowers should work out a strategy to mobilise support. Some common techniques are getting the media on-side, using the Web, or printing up a simple leaflet and handing it around at work.