Scientific leader Alan Leshner encourages ethical approach to science

Alan Leshner, executive publisher of the journal Science, explored the relationship between societal beliefs and scientific findings in his talk to students and faculty members at the University of Miami Wednesday night.

Leshner visited campus as part of the Adrienne Arsht Distinguished Speaker Series in Ethics, which brings speakers to campus through donations from philanthropist Adrienne Arsht in partnership with the Ethics Department.

Leshner is currently the executive publisher of the journal Science and the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific community.

A neuroscientist and a psychologist, Leshner began his career as a psychology professor in Bucknell University, where he did research on the relationship between hormones and behavior. After 10 years of teaching, he turned to public service, becoming the deputy director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

From 1994 to 2001, he served as the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), where he worked with President Donna E. Shalala. He advocated for a shift in public opinion from blaming addiction as a lack of willpower to seeing addiction as a disease that morphs the brain and requires treatment.

His speech, titled “Science and Societal Values,” began by emphasizing the need encourage ethics in science to avoid publishing fraudulent papers that could tarnish the reputation of scientific institutions and destroy society’s trust in the scientific community.

As the head of AAAS, Leshner makes sure that papers with fabricated data are corrected or retracted in order to preserve this delicate trust.

Kenneth Goodman, a co-director of the Ethics Programs in the University of Miami, agreed with Leshner’s emphasis on ethics in scientific research.

“We can never be reminded too often or too much about the importance of scientific literacy in sorting out social values – and the importance of values in guiding scientific progress,” Goodman said. “Dr. Leshner made it clear that science and ethics are inextricably linked.”

Most of the time, Leshner explained, the scientific community and society are in a mutual relationship where scientific innovation helps solve society’s problems, thereby increasing public support for scientific funding. However, dispute occurs over sensitive topics such as stem cell research, human sexual behavior and the causes of drug addiction.

In the case of drug addiction, advances in neuroscience have challenged beliefs on how drugs affect the brain. Prior to the invention of the MRI scanner, conventional wisdom labeled addiction as a character flaw. The development of MRI scanners have shown that drugs cause certain areas of the brain to become active and cause physical changes to the brain over time, leading to the conclusion that addiction is not solely caused by a lack of willpower.

“Advancement of science conflicts with religious, political and ideological beliefs,” Leshner said. “We require a different approach: to look for common ground with the public so that neither science nor society will be injured and so that society can reap the full benefits of what science has shown.”

To promote good relations between the scientific community and the public, Leshner stated that “science and religion should never be cast as in inevitable battle” because “they deal with different domains.” Instead, the scientific community should listen to the public and discuss mutual interests, such as answering questions and creating solutions to problems faced by society.

Students and faculty applauded at the conclusion of this talk, then proceeded to chat among themselves over the aforementioned issues. One faculty member, Anita Cava, another co-director of the Ethics Programs, gave her opinion on the speech.

“Dr. Leshner’s thoughtful examination of the challenges scientists face in effectively communicating with the public effectively underlined  the central role that critical thinking and values play in making policy,” Cava said.