Research integrity and principal-agent theory

Here’s a very interesting perspective on the notion of misconduct in scientific and medical research. This blog, called Understanding Society, is written from a philosophy of social science perspective by Daniel Little from the University of Michigan. This particular entry addresses research misconduct as an organizational problem and describes it as a “gigantic principal-agent problem”.

Here is the original blog entry: Scientific misconduct as a principal-agent problem

It falls within the scope of the more general challenge of motivating, managing, and supervising highly skilled and independent professionals. The “agent” is the individual researcher and research team. And the “principal” may be construed at a range of levels: society at large, the Federal government, the NIH, the research institute, or the department chair. But it seems likely that the problem is most tractable if we focus attention on the more proximate relationships — the NIH, the research institute, and the researcher.

So this is a good problem to consider from the point of view of institutional design and complex interactive social behavior. We know what kind of behavior we want; the problem is to create the institutional settings and motivational processes through which the desired behavior is encouraged and the undesired behavior is detected and punished.

The principal-agent problem can be described very simply as a situation in which an agent who is contracted to carry out a particular function or role (e.g. a researcher) has unique interests, which may or may not reflect those of the principal (e.g. an employing institution). However, a principal only has a limited ability to monitor the activities of an agent and how they may or may not advance their own interests as they carry out their role.

The questions that Little raises as he views scientific misconduct from this perspective are important ones to consider. Who do we consider to be the principal in scientific research? Is it the researcher’s institution, funding agency or the governmental body who provides oversight of research or even society at large? Furthermore, how do they achieve the kinds of behaviours they want to see? What kinds of constraints, rules or sanctions need to be in place to encourage the ethical conduct of research? These are all good questions and there are few clearly adequate answers. It’s worthwhile to consider the problem of scientific and research misconduct from this perspective.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the principal-agent problem, here is a link to a simple and short explanation by Khalid Abdalla in Region Focus: Jargon Alert

~ by Nancy Walton on February 18, 2009.

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