Unintended Research Bias

Given the high costs of sophisticated equipment, maintenance of laboratory animals and facilities, and salaries for qualified technicians and researchers, little behavioral or biomedical research is undertaken without governmental or foundation support. The choice of problems for study in medical research is substantially determined by a national agenda that defines what is worthy of study, that is, worth funding. As Marxist (Zimmerman et al.), African-American (Campbell, Denes, and Morrison), and feminist (Harding, 1998) critics of scientific research have pointed out, the scientific research undertaken in the United States reflects the societal bias toward the powerful, who are overwhelmingly white, middle/upper class, and male. Members of Congress and the individuals in the theoretical and decision-making positions within the medical and scientific establishments that set priorities and allocate funds for research exemplify these descriptors. The lack of diversity among Congressional and scientific leaders may allow unintentional, undetected flaws to bias the research in terms of what we study and how we study it. Some have characterized the diversion of scarce resources away from public health measures known to prevent diseases for the masses towards the multibillion dollar Human Genome Project as an example of placing the interests of the powerful above those of the general public, since gene therapy and designer genes are likely to benefit fewer, wealthier people.

Examples from research studies demonstrate that unintentional bias may be reflected in at least three stages of application of the scientific method: (1) choice and definition of problems to be studied; (2) methods and approaches used in data gathering, including whom we choose as subjects; and (3) theories and conclusions drawn from the data.

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