From Halo to The Simpsons, would fictional mad scientists pass … – Science

Cave Johnson is almost ready to start a new study in his secret underground facility. The founder of the Michigan-based technology company Aperture Science, he’s invented a portal gun that allows people to teleport to various locations. Now, he and his colleagues want to see whether they can make portals appear on previously unfit surfaces with a new “conversion gel” containing moon dust. “It may be toxic. We are unsure,” he wrote in a recent research proposal.
To test the gel, Johnson plans to recruit orphans, homeless people, and the elderly. They’ll get 60 bucks—compensation he feels is well worth the risk of their skin potentially peeling off, death due to an artificial intelligence guide becoming sentient, or worse.
None of this is real, of course—Johnson is the villain of the popular video game Portal—but the makeshift ethical review board that evaluated his study was. At a Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research conference conducted online last month, attendees of the session “Mad Science on Trial: The Real Ethical Problems With Fictional Scientists” had some serious concerns with Johnson’s research. Would the participants’ data be secure and anonymized? Would the team of henchmen include some henchwomen as well? And, most importantly, would there be cake?
The moderators of the session didn’t just target Johnson. They asked their audience of 450 virtual attendees to evaluate other fictional mad scientists as well, voting on whether an institutional review board (IRB)—a body of experts that a research institution uses to evaluate whether proposals are ethically sound—should approve their protocols.
Science sat down with two of the panelists—operations manager Lisa Rigtrup at the University of Utah’s IRB, and compliance analyst Amanda Sly of the U.S. Office for Human Research Protections, which evaluates the ethics of federally funded research involving human subjects—to talk about what fictional mad scientists can teach us about real research ethics.
Lisa Rigtrup: I’m kind of the Chandler [from Friends] of my group because everybody knows I have a job but they don’t know what I do. I’ve explained it multiple times and they still don’t understand it. This “mad scientist” concept is something that you can explain to just about everybody to some degree.
To work out the kinks, I went to my local comic convention and put on this fake IRB panel for the folks that were attending. It was received pretty well. I think this format is good for making the IRB ethics world fun and doing it in a way that kind of stretches people’s minds.
Amanda Sly: I think the pop culture side of things is the hook. This format could be used to really reach just about any age group, especially if you wanted to go into an elementary school and teach them a little bit about research ethics.
L.R.: For most investigators, it’s pretty rare that you get somebody that’s completely naïve and wants to take on a research study. There’s a lot of training that happens before you can even submit a proposal to us. But I’ve seen protocols where a researcher wants to do fake injections for no real reason or cut someone’s skin as part of a placebo group. Sometimes these forms have pages and pages of risks—with no clear benefits. I just go, “Who would sign up for this?”
A.S.: Occasionally we do see the ones that you’re like, “You’re not quite a mad scientist, but there’s some hubris there.” 
A.S.: The IRB should consider only those risks and benefits that may result from the research, and should not consider possible long-range effects of applying knowledge gained in the research. It’s really about the risk to those participating in the research. You can’t always anticipate that this lovely cancer drug you’re approving could be used as a poison, so the IRB isn’t charged to go that far in their evaluations.
L.R.: Sometimes the opposite is true. When we get funding from the Veterans administration or Department of Defense for military projects, they often find more domestic applications for it. For example, there was some testing going on here with an exoskeleton. You get in this thing and it looks like something from Aliens. You know they had intended it to be for supersoldiers. And then I was watching the local news a few months ago, and here’s this exoskeleton at the local airport and they’re using it to help move heavy luggage. I actually really enjoy when the research turns out to be something that betters the general public.
L.R.: We wish there was some calculator that we could plug these things into and just get our risk-benefit ratio spat out. But the human element is critical. This is why we have groups of people that hash this stuff out: You’re dealing with risks that affect people’s lives and you’re dealing with research that’s going to be used to make changes in the world.
A.S.: It also comes down to the diversity of the boards themselves, which include five scientists and one nonscientist. If you’re reviewing a specific kind of research, you need to have the proper expertise on that board to understand what’s going on. You don’t want an IRB that has nothing but engineers reviewing an oncology study or vice versa.
L.R.: I have no poker face.
A.S.: I definitely told myself to keep it together. Don’t laugh.
Sara Readon is a freelance journalist covering biomedical, environmental and social science from beautiful Bozeman, Montana.
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