Much Obliged


This case highlights potential dilemmas encountered by postdoctoral fellows in a research setting. To whom is a research Ph.D. student obligated when a patent for research he created will be owned by the university and hinder his own future research? It also explores the ethics of conflicting commitments and obligations that arise with successful research.


Larry Jones is a Ph.D. student in the laboratory of Michael McCleary. Jones chose to work in McCleary's laboratory because of McCleary's excellent reputation as a molecular biologist and the promise that Jones would be given a good deal of flexibility concerning his research focus.

Early in his academic career, Jones decided to devote his research to the genetics of Kruese's disease, a debilitating hereditary disease of the muscles. His work toward his doctorate would be a continuation of his master's thesis. In his time in McCleary's laboratory, he hoped to better characterize the gene (i.e., the mutant allele) responsible for the disease. With this work, he could create a genetic test that would allow medical doctors to determine whether an individual carried the mutant allele.

Although Kruese's disease was not a major focus of McCleary's laboratory, he agreed to support Jones as much as possible using money from other grants. Jones, however, also spent a great deal of time throughout his graduate career preparing grant applications to ensure that his project would be adequately funded. McCleary was very supportive with proofing and suggestions. Although it was agreed without debate that Jones had written the grants, Jones was only a student, and McCleary was listed as the author and principal investigator in all of the grant applications.

Over the course of Jones's research, several grant applications were accepted. The reviewers always expressed confidence in McCleary's laboratory, and the funding was generous. A portion of the grant from The American Society for the Prevention of Kruese's disease was intended to augment Jones's stipend (provided by the university) by 70 percent, allowing him to live in relative comfort during his six years of research.

With the cooperation of an excellent team of technicians, Jones was successful in reaching the goals of his research. He had improved the characterization of the mutant allele responsible for the disease and developed a test by which a patient's DNA could be accurately screened for its presence.

McCleary was very pleased with Jones's work in the laboratory. He explained to Jones that before he informed any funding agency of his final results, he (McCleary) would prepare the patent applications for both the sequence of the mutant allele and the genetic test. In accordance with university rules, McCleary and the university would share the patents.

Jones views the patents as a major impediment both to other scientists' ability to build on his results and his own ability to continue research in this direction upon leaving McCleary's laboratory. Adding to his fears is the fact that McCleary doesn't seem interested in continuing research on Kruese's disease after Jones's departure. He expresses his concerns to McCleary, and McCleary is bewildered. He agrees with Jones that patents may hinder further research, but he explains that they are a potential source of revenue and necessary for the prestige for the laboratory. Jones's stomach tightens as he feels a mix of obligations.

Discussion Questions

  1. To whom is Jones obligated, and what does he owe them? What about McCleary?
  2. In what ways do any of these obligations conflict?
  3. Which (if any) of these obligations are more important or stronger than others? Why?
  4. What are some of scientists' obligations to society? Are any of these obligations "special"? Why?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 5, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2001.

. . Much Obliged. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

Lying, cheating and stealing are examples of behaviors that most members of our society would deem unethical in most situations. It follows that many young scientists may think of such behaviors when asked to discuss ethics. For example, it is unethical to fabricate data; it is unethical to copy someone elseÀs answers during an exam; and it is unethical to plagiarize. Each action is a relatively unambiguous example of unethical conduct, and scientists can easily define the behaviors that make each action unethical. Many of the ethical quandaries faced by scientists are not so straightforward. This case study is designed to illustrate a subtler ethical dilemma: conflicting commitments and obligations.

Conflicts of obligations are those situations where competing obligations prevent honoring both obligations effectively.Werhane, Patricia, and Doering, Jeffrey. "Conflicts of Interest and Conflicts of Commitments." Professional Ethics 4 (3 and 4, Spring/Summer 1995): 47-81. Young scientists are faced with conflicting obligations and commitments the minute they step into the laboratory. New graduate students certainly have obligations to their advisers/mentors, who are offering their expertise and affording environments in which students can pursue research. Students may also be obligated to assist other graduate students in laboratory or department. They may act as teaching assistants and therefore have obligations to undergraduate students. Outside academia, graduate students may have obligations to their families, who may have sacrificed so that the students could pursue higher education. The list can continue on and on.

While many graduate students feel that life becomes golden upon graduation, obligations seemingly loom larger. As professors, the scientists now have obligations to whole laboratories and all their players from student workers to technical assistants to graduate students. Professors also have obligations to their superiors, funding agencies, university committees, professional societies and families. Vesilind devotes an entire chapter to this juggling act in his book So You Want to Be a Professor.Vesilind, P. Aarne. "The Academic Career" in So You Want to Be a Professor. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, Inc., 2000, pp. 173-80.

Unfortunately, very few scientists are professional jugglers by training. With so much promised to so many people, something has to give. When these obligations conflict and scientists are forced to honor one obligation over another, they may find themselves in an ethical pickle.

In this case, there should be no bad guy. Jones may come off as naive, and McCleary may seem a little aggressive, but one would be hard-pressed to determine where to place the blame. Certainly no one has committed any act that needs to be reviewed by a judiciary board. It is simply a case where commitments have been made to several different parties and the two major parties involved have a different hierarchy as of commitments.

Question 1: To whom is Jones obligated, and what does he owe them? What about McCleary?

Ideally, students will come up with a variety of answers to this question. Jones is certainly obligated to McCleary, who has funded him at least partially throughout his work, afforded him a laboratory with equipment and technicians. McCleary has also lent Jones his expertise and reputation in pursuing funding and provided an environment in which Jones can freely pursue the science that interests him. Jones is obligated to keep McCleary informed of his results and allow him to share in the credit for his successes at some level. Jones is also obligated to share in the responsibility of disseminating his research findings.

Jones is also obligated to the funding agencies that supported his work, one of which is a nonprofit organization devoted entirely to raising money to defeat Kruese's disease. Jones is responsible to the funding agencies for honestly pursuing his hypotheses and reporting his findings to them.

Jones may also have familial obligations and obligations to those who gave him technical support throughout the work. Students can continue in this same vein in trying to determine McCleary's obligations.

Question 2: In what ways do any of these obligations conflict?

Students can weave a complicated web trying to determine which obligations conflict. For example, Jones feels an obligation to the scientific community and recognizes that patents may hinder other scientists building on his work. The patents, however, would partially satisfy Jones's obligation to McCleary by letting him share in their successes. The patents also would add prestige and perhaps revenue to McCleary's lab, fulfilling in part the professor's obligations to his laboratory. McCleary, however, in an attempt to market the patent in a manner that brings profit to the lab, may make the test much more expensive than the Society for the Prevention of Kruese's disease would desire. Considering Jones's obligations to his family, it may be in his best interest to be part of the patent and make a little profit from his work.

Question 3: Which (if any) of these obligations are more important or stronger than others? Why?

The real ethical quandary develops when students are asked to determine which obligations are more important than others. Having to choose one obligation over another will push students to consider the ethics surrounding obligations. Why is it so bad to break promises?

Question 4: What are some of scientists' obligations to society? Are any of these obligations "special"? Why?

The first three questions are designed to encourage each individual to decide which obligations should receive priority in this particular situation. The fourth question is designed to encourage students to think of the bigger picture: our obligations to society as scientists. As research scientists, we spend years becoming experts in our fields. In many situations, what we research and how our results are used affect an enormous number of people. To say that we have "special" obligations may be pretentious. An assembly line worker has as great an obligation to society in ensuring that a car's braking system is properly assembled. The development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, however, is one example of scientists being the most knowledgeable in their fields and seemingly failing in their obligations to society. The result has proved disastrous for several generations.

As members of society most knowledgeable in our fields, we certainly must define our obligations to society. At present, progress is exploding in the field of biotechnology. The technologies being developed could go far to alleviate human suffering but could also prove calamitous if misused. Most scientists agree that we have an obligation to society to be honest in our discoveries, but how far do these obligations extend? Do we have obligations to society to ensure that these technologies are not misused? These are decisions each scientist will have to make individually. What are our obligations? How far do scientists' obligations extend? How can we adequately honor all of our obligations?

This case is unusual in focusing on a relationship between a student and his laboratory director to raise questions about scientists' obligations to constituencies outside the lab, and to the public, alongside obligations within the lab. Tracing the evolution of the relationship from the student's entry into the lab to his eventual success in reaching his research goals, the narrative offers a relatively unproblematic history of the student's progress in graduate study. Until near the end when the lab director, Michael McCleary, must prepare the patent applications, he and the student, Larry Jones, seem to get along well and understand one another.

At this juncture, their perspectives diverge significantly. Apparently, Jones has been motivated all along by the desire to help conquer a genetic disease. By producing an improved characterization of the gene, he could create a genetic test to show whether an individual carries the mutant allele. While McCleary's lab does not put a major emphasis on this disease, McCleary is accommodating, either as a general policy or out of the realization that Jones's motivation to make an inroad on Kruese's disease may be productive. He promises Jones considerable flexibility concerning his research focus. His accommodation consists in no small part in helping Jones with funding, allotting funds to him from grants already in the lab, and supporting Jones's own applications for funding. One grant Jones manages to win comes from the American Society for the Prevention of Kruese's Disease (ASPKD), an award that allows him to live in relative comfort during his six years of research. McCleary also makes available in the lab an excellent team of technicians whose cooperation proves vital to Jones's success.

It is reasonable to argue that Jones has incurred an obligation to each of these sources of help, and perhaps to others. He is indebted to McCleary for taking him into the lab, for his guidance, for his substantial help with funding, and for making the technicians' assistance available, along with other lab resources. Jones has obligations to all the agencies that contributed funding to his research: He owes them diligent, careful use of the research funds received. Does the obligation to ASPKD include making the outcome of his research available in some form to the Society? With no information about any arrangement between Jones and ASPKD on this matter, the reader cannot tell whether Jones owes ASPKD something more than diligence in his research. Apart from any explicit arrangement, he might think he owes the Society some kind of access to his results under certain conditions. If Jones has no sense of a special obligation to ASPKD, the question arises whether he should acknowledge such an obligation because this non-profit organization is devoted entirely to raising money to conquer Kruese's disease, and because it has allowed Jones to live in relative comfort as a graduate student. There is also a question of what obligation, if any, Jones has to society.For a forceful defense of broad obligations to society, see Kristen Shrader-Frechette, Ethics of Scientific Research (Rowman and Littlefield: Lanham, Md., 1994). For a critical evaluation of this volume, see review by V. Weil in Ethics (July 1996), pp. 879-881. He might wonder if he has a duty to facilitate health benefits to society from his research, especially if he has obtained grants of funding from government agencies. Finally, it may be that Jones now has an obligation to certain family members from whom he received specific support for carrying out his research.

McCleary's perspective is quite different. As a lab chief, he has a duty to look out for the interests of his lab: its continuing financial viability and the ongoing funding of productive graduate students. Equally important is the obligation to maintain an ethical climate in which understandings about appropriate conduct and their rationales are explicit and channels of communication are in place and well used. Because research results in the lab have potential for patenting, this lab director has an obligation to ensure not only that students are aware of policies that govern patenting but also that they have thoroughly discussed ethical issues associated with patenting. In the course of discussion, the lab director should ensure that pros and cons of patenting health related results are well considered.

McCleary himself may have settled views about patenting, but he must recognize that graduate students need opportunities, beginning early in their research, to consider the issues for themselves. Patenting is a relatively new component of graduate study, and for that reason alone it requires specific attention. Beyond that, the patenting of research results seems to violate common assumptions about the importance of openness in science and accessibility to research findings. McCleary himself agrees with Jones that patents may hinder further research. In the case of health-related research results, social justice concerns about the increased costs from patenting and hence fair distribution of benefits add to the general concerns about availability of findings.

When McCleary brings up the matter of patenting, his top priority is the lab's funding support and prestige. In contrast, Jones's chief concern is the continuation of research that builds on his results. Whether or not discussion of patenting in the lab at earlier junctures prepared Jones for this moment, he and McCleary now have divergent priorities. It would be useful to open for discussion some of these issues that may or may not have been discussed earlier. One issue that should be considered concerns reasonable expectations of the ASPKD. In addition, Jones can discuss this matter with a representative of the Society. In the abstract, it might seem desirable for Jones to handle his results in such a way that they directly benefit the ASPKD and are available at lower cost to potential patients than patenting would permit. Yet from discussion, Jones may come to see that, in view of existing institutional arrangements that he has tacitly accepted, he has fulfilled his obligation to the Society by doing good research.

University policy excludes Jones from participation in the patent. The fairness of this policy is worth discussion. From the outside, it may seem unfair in view of the fact that the patent applies to the results of Jones's research. However, keeping in mind that Jones is indebted to McCleary for guidance, funding and other resources and that McCleary alone is writing the patent applications, we may judge that the policy does not work unfairly in this case. It may be reasonable, then, to say that, in accord with university policy, McCleary does not have an obligation to include Jones in the patent.

If Jones has incurred obligations to family members, he will have opportunities in the future to repay them for their support. He should not lose sight of those obligations even though they do not seem to pose interesting questions for discussion within the research group.

Remaining as an important matter for discussion is the issue of whether and to what extent patenting constitutes a hindrance to further research. Is there empirical evidence that it is more than a transitory barrier? Does the prospect of patenting provide incentives that promote research, compensating for the temporary hindrance from proprietary control? These questions involve broad, complex issues that have received scholarly attention and merit further investigation.For discussions by philosophers, legal scholars, a historian, scientists and others, see V. Weil and J. Snapper, eds., Owning Scientific and Technical Information (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989). These issues cannot be resolved in individual research groups. At the same time, lab directors and other investigators should not assume that these issues are irrelevant or inappropriate for discussion within research groups. It is tempting to exclude such matters from the research setting or to give them low priority. That response overlooks the benefits to scientists, the conduct of research, and society and the potentially positive affect on public support of science, if emerging young scientists have been prepared to reflect seriously upon their multiple obligations.

Author: Vivian Weil, Illinois Institute of Technology.