Integrity in biology research is essential to positive, forward progress in our understanding of the created world. In this essay, Baker shares her perspective as a biology educator and researcher on the influence that Christian calling can have on the conscious decision to pursue and conduct research with integrity. She provides personal and practical suggestions to foster God-honoring decisions that build research practices that promote integrity in biology.
In my freshmen biology lab, students study lactase, an enzyme produced by cells in the small intestine. Lactase digests lactose, a sugar found in milk, into simpler sugars—glucose and galactose. Lactose tolerant students predict that they have the enzyme lactase and, therefore, will see an increase in their glucose levels after consuming lactose-rich milk. However, after performing an experiment, students’ results often do not match their predictions. Some students find that their glucose levels remain constant after drinking milk. When this occurs, students hesitate to record their data and instinctively want to remove it from the larger class data set. However, what students do not realize is that their data, while unexpected to them, is not wrong, but instead that it hints at a deeper complexity of the lactase system. Removing their data would lead the class to an incomplete—incorrect, even—understanding of lactose tolerance.
Integrity in Biology Research
While this is a simple story with relatively minor consequences, the students’ experience opens a door for us to discuss a topic with far deeper and broader implications: integrity in research. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary lists the following definitions of integrity1:
1. Firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values: incorruptibility.
2. An unimpaired condition: soundness.
3. The quality or state of being complete or undivided: completeness.
Note that these definitions include a sense of action (“firm adherence”) and a condition or state (“unimpaired” or “complete”). Using the lactase lab situation above, both facets are relevant in investigative biology. First, scientists with integrity act in particular ways and adhere to a research code. For example, my students’ hesitancy with the unexpected data prompts a conversation about the research “code” of fully recording and being honest about all collected data. Secondly, scientists’ conclusions or understandings can also have or lack integrity. For biology conclusions to have integrity, they must be unimpaired and complete. In the lactase lab, an incomplete data set—whether because students intentionally removed data, poorly designed the experiment, or made a data collection error—would lead students to an incomplete or incorrect understanding of lactose tolerance. In short, it is not only the biologists but also biology itself that can have or lack integrity.
A Research Integrity Crisis
Although I did not have a concrete way to articulate it at the time, these dual aspects of research integrity have tugged at me since my own college research experience. As a sophomore college student, I used the fruit fly wing as a readout of cell signaling activities. We used a simple quantification system that relied on the researcher to assign severity scores; I quickly realized that there was a certain level of subjectiveness to our method, and the scores could vary greatly due to researcher naivety, laziness, lack of focus, or simple error. As a young researcher, I realized that I could do my best—i.e., have integrity—and yet the conclusions we drew could be wrong—i.e., our conclusions or model would lack integrity. Similarly, as a graduate student, after a period of training and demonstrating my skills, I was given great latitude to not only design experiments and collect data but also to draw conclusions. By this point, although I was far more adept in my research abilities, I still had the nagging feeling that I could be wrong. And being wrong could have lasting impacts. Indeed, a fellow student’s degree was derailed once it was discovered that the conclusions of a previous student—on which her own work was founded—were incorrect!
As my fellow student found out the hard way, when one study lacks integrity—i.e., drawing incorrect or incomplete conclusions—future studies are disrupted, and biology cannot efficiently move forward. In biology, evidence of this disruption is most obvious at the clinical research stage, when phase II or III trials do not support the predicted therapeutic benefits of the test treatment.2 These clinical trials are based on evidence derived from pre-clinical and basic foundational research. In these foundational studies, poor science becomes evident through irreproducibility, which is the inability of other research groups to replicate a study’s findings.3
As I dug deeper into the topic, I soon realized that the broader research community shared my concerns about integrity in biology. The issues extended far beyond freshmen lab projects and individual graduate student degrees. Summarizing the results of several studies, Freedman, Cockburn, and Simcoe suggest that more than 50% of studies in the life sciences are irreproducible!4 Unsurprisingly, this has led to skepticism amongst scientists about the validity of conclusions in published studies. A survey distributed by Nature, an interdisciplinary science journal, found that 90% of 1,576 respondents responded that there was a “slight” or “significant” reproducibility crisis in science, while only 3% replied that there was no crisis at all (7% did not know).5 Of these same respondents, 70% said they had personally “tried and failed” to reproduce an experiment from another research team.6
These findings are concerning. An inaccurate or incomplete understanding of the created world impacts not only the current study, but it prevents timely and beneficial applications in environmental stewardship, medicine, and beyond. As we seek to love our neighbor and steward creation, integrity in biology is essential. Furthermore, as we seek to love our God, seeking truthful understandings of His creation is of the utmost concern. Surely, we can do better than a 50% reproducibility rate! While I am under no illusion that a single paper can fully tackle the topic, I hope to spark a conversation by sharing my early-career reflections on how biologists can pursue a culture of integrity in their research work. To start, I will consider the reasons for the lack of integrity, particularly focusing on researchers’ underlying ambitions. Following that, I will share suggestions based on my experiences to help stave off temptations and encourage integrity in our research.
The Research Rat-Race Promotes Selfish Ambition
Why does a lack of integrity exist? At the practical level, we can point to actions that lead to poor science. Outright fabrication of results and other serious research misconduct events are rare (although RetractionWatch.com reveals that it is more common than we may think).7 However, more subtle actions are prevalent and include poorly designed experiments, experimenter bias, insufficient understanding of the model system being used, glossing over of harmful impacts of treatment, inappropriate statistical analysis, minimal experimental details disclosed in publications, and unpublished negative results.8
However, while it is relatively simple to identify practices that lead to poor studies, perhaps it is more critical to discuss why researchers tend to pursue such practices. I am sure, if we surveyed 100 biologists, all of them would agree that correcting these practices is a good idea. If so, why are they still so prevalent? In short, I believe that our current research culture negatively influences research integrity because it encourages selfish ambition. It is only when we shift our ambitions that we can stave off temptations and pursue integrity.
Let me explain. A researcher is typically employed by a university, federal agency, or industry business or is a student or postdoctoral fellow working towards such a position. Thus, while he or she may have ambitions to use research for “good” purposes (whatever the researcher determines “good” to be), his or her immediate ambition is to the job or degree being pursued. Jobs and degrees are in limited supply, and this creates competition for these coveted positions. Unfortunately, this results in a culture that encourages researchers who are motivated by a competitive spirit towards prestige, funding, and numerous or notable publications.
Two excerpts from biomedical ethics articles highlight the negative impact this pressure has on the motivations of the researcher:
Academic competition poses pressure on researchers. Funding opportunities, prestige, and recognition are often dependent on the number of articles published, the magnitude of studies conducted, and the amount of high-profile journals published in. The difficulty to win research funds is even more exacerbated in times of austerity, while publishing higher numbers of papers to gain doctoral degrees and/or to have research careers might lead to arguable incentives for non-accurate research or even wasted research efforts.9
Science is not done by paragons of virtue, but by individuals who are as prone to self-interest as anyone else. They can compromise their usually high standards of rigour when involved in commercial or otherwise conflicted relationships. When resources are scarce and competition is fierce they might seek the easiest and quickest—rather than the best—ways forward. They could judge that they would rather be first than be right. When their research hunch turns out to be wrong, many researchers move to the next one rather than going through the painstaking business of reporting negative findings.10
This competition reaches all levels of researchers and intensifies when funding or opportunities are limited. Principal investigators rely on publications for future funding, prestige, and job promotions. Full-time research technicians depend on continuous funding for job stability. Students or post-doctoral fellows crave conference presentations, publications, and awards to please their supervisor and ensure a timely degree, strong reference letters, competitive resume, and a future job. When these jobs, grants, and publication opportunities are limited—as they often are—research becomes a rat race, in which only the most talented and ruthlessly competitive scientists survive. The rat race discourages research integrity, as it shifts the emphasis from research quality towards efficiency, quantity, and self-benefit. As such, our current culture of research fosters scientists who put self-promotion above research quality.
A Reflection on a Higher Calling: God Calls Us to Love Him
Reflecting on this current research culture of personal success and self-promotion, I see a sharp contrast to God’s call for us to honor and recognize His lordship in our lives. God is king over His creation11 and we are called to love Him with “all [y]our heart and with all [y]our soul and with all [y]our mind.”12 This love, which motivates us to obedience,13 ought to influence all that we do, including our research. We can find wisdom in Moses’ teaching in Deuteronomy, where he connects God’s revelation to our obedience saying, “. . . the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”14 Indeed, everything God allows us to know, science or otherwise, enables us to love and obey Him more deeply. Jan H. Boer, a missionary to Nigeria, wrote an article titled Science without Faith is Dead, in which he states, “What a man is in his heart will influence all his works, also his science. If that heart is fully committed to God (all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength), one’s work, including scientific work, will tend to direct him in the service of God.”15 Indeed, loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind precludes the self- and greed-motivated science that is encouraged by our competitive research culture. Put positively, love for God provides motivation for God-honoring scientific integrity.
How then can we prepare ourselves, encourage colleagues, and train students to pursue such integrity? How can we stave off worldly temptations to put our own ambitions above the pursuit of God’s truth? My suggestions are rooted in my experiences in research and my work with students. The suggestions fall into two broad categories. Those in the first category (1–4) seek to foster our love for God and shift our research motivations away from selfish gain. Armed with ever-deepening motivations to put God above ourselves, we are then equipped to build research practices that reflect these motivations and practically encourage scientific integrity. As such, the second category of suggestions (5–10) includes practices that I have intentionally—albeit not always successfully—pursued in my own research program.
Suggestion 1. Let Your Research Draw You in Awe to the Creator
One of the rich benefits of studying biology is the opportunity to delight in creation, drawing in awe and reverence to the Creator. As scientists, we can explore the beautiful book of God’s created universe,16 which convicts us and reminds us of His “eternal power and divine nature.”17 As a developmental biologist, I marvel at a developing embryo’s genetic and molecular intricacies and am reminded of the brilliant creativity of God. Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch politician, and theologian, pondered creation’s role in pointing us to Christ:
The eternal thoughts of God that have found their embodiment in all of creation—and thus also in the kingdoms of plants and animals—have come to their embodiment only through the eternal Word [that is, Christ]. There is not a single flower or single chirping bird that does not represent something of this eternal Word that has its mark placed upon all creatures. You cannot point to any natural realm or star or comet or even descend into the depth of the earth, but it is related to Christ, not in some unimportant tangential way, but directly.18
Indeed, what a rich blessing it is to have creation, the subject of our research, elevate our amazement and awe of our Creator and Sustainer!
Not only does creation reveal God’s power and divine nature, but it also reminds us of creation’s low estate, which has been devastated by the effects of our sin. As Morris and Petcher wrote in Science & Grace, “scientific work also provides the raw materials for constant reflection on gospel themes as it illustrates the reality of a fallen world and uncovers human inability while also revealing God’s provision, goodness, and faithfulness.”19 I am regularly reminded of this in my research field as we select genes to study based on their known associations with human disorders and diseases. As Genesis 3 and Romans 8 remind us, because of sin, “cursed is the ground . . . thorns and thistles it shall bring forth”20 and “the whole creation has been groaning together.”21 Disease and sickness are prevalent around us and even our best research efforts are incapable of reversing the effects of sin and doing away with disease, sickness, and death. This can bring us discouragement but also draw us in humility and repentance to Christ. As Romans 8 reminds us so well, in Christ, we have a sure hope that our weakness and the frailty of creation is only temporary.22 By bringing to light both the power of the Creator and the frailty of creation, our daily scientific endeavors can lead us to reverent awe before God and continually redirect our motivations to His glory.
Suggestion 2. In Humility, Recognize God as the Creator and Revealer of Truth
Throughout their writings, Morris and Petcher humbly remind us that as created beings, we can, at best, discover the details of creation that God chooses to reveal. God’s revelation is according to His will and ultimate purposes. They write,
Scientific knowledge as human knowledge is a part of creation and is contingent on God’s revealing activity. Science deals with objective elements of creation, yet human knowledge of that creation will always be creaturely and thus relative in some sense. Furthermore, His revealing activity is according to His purposes as He unfolds them. While we know the ultimate ends of His purposes, He alone knows the specific in-history means He will use and the paths that human knowledge must take to accomplish His purposes in Christ. On a moment-by-moment basis, Christians called to the sciences are to respond to God’s revealing work by both submitting to revelation as it is given and by unfolding revelation further as they focus on their specific scientific tasks.23
As a research community, let us be humbled by our discoveries and recognize that our research accomplishes everything to—but nothing beyond—God’s purposes.
Individual researchers are further limited by our narrow training, biases, and incompletely informed perspectives within the research community. On our own, each person captures a sliver of the whole picture. It is imprudent to present ourselves as experts outside of our immediate research field. A simple example of overstepping bounds is the extensive use of inappropriate statistical methods by biologists who lack the appropriate mathematical training; many biomedical studies are irreproducible because they lack statistical robustness.24 In contrast, a realistic recognition of our limitations can ward off arrogance and allow us to respect and embrace ideas that differ from ours. Recently, I initiated conversations with a statistician colleague regarding a data set my lab collected this past year. His questions quickly revealed that I had not fully thought through the study. Based on our conversations, my lab is now adding additional controls to make our data set far more robust.
The Apostle Paul encourages us, “in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”25 Extending this idea into the academic sphere, Christian philosopher Arthur Holmes suggests, “the fallibility, the fragmentariness of human understanding require that we grant others the liberty we desire for ourselves; that we be willing to learn from others, and remain open to correction, to new angles, to invigorating insights . . . working creatively and self-critically in all our endeavors.”26 Such humility and eagerness to learn from others increases biology integrity as they deepen our understanding and strengthen the conclusions we can draw from our studies.
Suggestion 3. Steward the Blessing of Research and Turn It Back in Praise to God
“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.”27 As the Psalmist reminds us, the earth belongs to the Creator, and we are blessed with a rich opportunity to study it. God also provides the resources—funding, equipment, labor, time, curiosity, and intellectual ability—that are critical to research. We are stewards of what He has entrusted to us, and we follow in Adam’s footsteps, who God put “in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”28
A beautiful example of a stewardly response is recorded in 1 Chronicles 29
as David prepares Solomon to build the temple by leading a collection of freewill contributions of gold, silver, and other costly building materials. After the people freely gave, David and the people demonstrated that they gave in recognition of God’s kingship over all of creation:
Then the people rejoiced because they had given willingly, for with a whole heart they had offered freely to the Lord. David the king also rejoiced greatly. . . . “Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name.”29
The Israelites’ praise serves as a model and reminder. Although I am not offering up material possessions to build a temple, I seek to mirror their response using the research funding, equipment, energy, skills, and time God has provided. Furthermore, following the Israelite’s example, I strive not only to use these gifts in glory to and praise of God but to do so willingly, with rejoicing, and with my whole heart.
Suggestion 4. Be Not Of, But Sent into the World of Research
In John 17, Jesus prays to the Father for His disciples, saying, “they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”30 The disciples were not of this world yet were sent into it to proclaim the gospel. Having been baptized into Christ, we, too, are Jesus’ disciples. Let us embrace this unique calling to prioritize and direct our research ambitions rightly.
Jesus prays that His disciples be not of the world. In our “world” of research, we can be excited to study the truths of God in creation. Yet, as Boer reminds us, “[Science] will not bring salvation, and it will not solve all our problems. We will need to continue to depend upon God.”31 If we lose sight of God as the creator and sustainer of the world, we risk forgetting that pursuit of biological truth is only relevant in light of a greater truth of salvation through Christ. Knowing that we are not of the world enables us to put aside worldly desires of selfish ambition and aim our affections heavenward.
Although Jesus’ disciples were not of this world, He sent them into the world to share the good news of Christ. As scientists, we can enter our world of research, not bucking the traditions of scientific research, but embracing our calling as those sent. George Marsden, in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, challenges Christian scholars by writing, “when one wants to speak to diverse audiences, one must be willing to accommodate to the language and rules designed for that community—to be all things to all people. As one Christian scholar remarked to me, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in academia, use academic conventions.’”32 God has placed us in a community of scholars enabling us to master the conventions of our discipline. With that background, we have an opportunity to uniquely enter into this world. For me, mastering fruit fly genetics, heart cell biology, and fluorescence microscopy un- expectedly opened a new door to enter as I was invited to mentor graduate students and serve on Ph.D. advisory committees at a neighboring state university. In our respective fields, we can boldly and excellently discover the complexities of creation, not distracted by the foolish “wisdom of the world,” but eager to “boast in the Lord” of His wisdom in creation and ultimately in Christ.33
Suggestion 5. Engage the Research World with Excellence
One of the beautiful aspects of God’s creation is that it is a myriad of intricate pieces woven together into one complex universe. Biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics are very different disciplines, yet they all engage the same creation. Within biology, there are organismal, developmental, molecular, cellular, microbial, and systems biologists. Like a camera lens that reveals an in-focus flower but blurs the field behind it, each sub-discipline—and even each researcher—focuses on unique aspects of the universe and discovers different layers of God’s creation. As studies develop and sub-fields overlap, the explanations from each study inform our understanding of the world, providing a more complete picture of creation.
Let each of us embrace our area of focus with excellence, not out of selfish ambition, but out of an eagerness to discover truths of God’s creation that our expertise brings into focus. Embracing the rigorous training required to master our discipline, let us eagerly bring our unique skills, training, insights, interests, perspectives, and strengths to a study. Morris and Petcher reflect in this way on what they richly describe as “our personal domain of transforming responsibility”:
The glory is that we are called to be stewards of what we have been given— not of what someone else has or what we wish we had. To personalize this: Only you can bring glory to your God in your science in this unique way. Those obscure details of your experiments or the arcane features of your specialized area or the quirky mix of people in your research group—these all form your personal domain of transforming responsibility.34
As a developmental biologist, I will be effective to the extent that I am well-versed in Drosophila melanogaster genetics and confocal microscopy. Mastering these enables me to study things that only my discipline can bring into focus. Even within a field, each researcher brings a unique skill set. As a big-picture visionary, one of my graduate school colleagues constantly brought fresh ideas to the lab. In contrast, as a detail-oriented person, I was uniquely positioned to fine-tune the techniques used to test these ideas. A willingness to master our disciplines and develop our strengths improves the detail within the “focal plane” of our individual work, enhancing the multi-dimensional understanding of a community of scientists.
Furthermore, as we pursue excellence in our sub-discipline, let us pair this with a strong set of research soft skills relevant to all areas of science. Let us take the time to be well-versed in relevant published studies, understand the scientific method and proper use of hypotheses and models, choose strong research questions and appropriate controls, draw well-evidenced conclusions, and communicate well. Perhaps most importantly, maintaining accurate and thorough records not only limits sloppy mistakes but also promotes an atmosphere of openness and honesty, reduces the temptation to go back and alter results, and increases efficiency. As journals allow, fully share methods in publications, facilitating replication of our experiments and timely and beneficial utilization of our research by other groups. Embracing these soft skills improves the quality of our research, reduces mistakes, and aids the translation of our findings into new contexts.
Suggestion 6. Build Strong Collaborations
My encouragement to pursue personal excellence does not mean I recommend working in isolation. I strongly encourage the opposite! We benefit immensely from reading and building on work published by other research groups. However, collaboration during a study is perhaps of even more benefit. Unfortunately, due to the competitive nature of many research teams, some labs remain insular and hide their findings from others until they publish the results. I recall a talk at a small conference within a tight-knit community. The student presenter spent fifteen minutes presenting her discovery of a new protein, successfully concealing the identity of this novel protein for the entire presentation. An awkward yet empathetic chuckle spread through the room as it became apparent that this most important detail would be excluded from the presentation. Until the study had been published and no other research team could “scoop” their results, the principal investigator had forbidden the student from revealing the protein’s identity. This competitive culture of science and the pride of researchers limit the numerous benefits of collaboration.
Mutually supportive relationships allow researchers to exchange ideas, critique each other’s work, and benefit from one another’s strengths and training. Collaborations outside the immediate discipline help prevent tunnel vision and bring broader and new perspectives to the conversation. Collaborations within a discipline can sharpen the focus of questions and approaches. This is perhaps especially true for those of us at primarily undergraduate institutions where most of our interactions are with trainees. Maintaining collaborations with researchers at state universities has sharpened my scholarly mind and helped me to stay abreast of significant advances in my field.
Furthermore, collaborations help research move forward more quickly, as there are not only more people completing the experiments but also more minds analyzing and interpreting the data from multiple perspectives. An open, collaborative dynamic—within a research team and between labs—can provide accountability and reduce the temptation to cut corners or manipulate data. By their very nature, collaborations are team-focused, lessening the pressure on a single researcher to sink or swim. Collaborations improve the pace and quality of research, benefiting both researchers and the broader scientific community.
Suggestion 7. Publish and Communicate Well
In addition to sharing our ongoing work with collaborators, it is also important to share our completed studies and new conclusions with others in a vetted venue. We can be eager to share our findings with the research community because that is precisely how biology moves forward toward an advanced understanding. Morris and Petcher suggest that “capturing our experiences in the lab or in the field in words, figures, charts, graphs, or equations is a specialized form of human contemplation that is not only good scientific practice but is godly stewardship for a believer . . . keeping one’s insights entirely to oneself would seem a selfish response to who we are and what we’ve been given in Christ.”35 Each summer with student interns, I emphasize the importance of communicating with excellence and spend considerable time with them preparing poster and oral presentations. I frequently share with them that one-third of the time I took to write my Ph.D. thesis was devoted to designing scientific figures that accurately conveyed my results. Communicating research findings well deepens the understanding of the research community and thus brings integrity to biology.
While perhaps obvious, it is worth noting that the benefit of a publication is lost if it presents poorly designed, executed, or analyzed research. Further, although it is helpful to set research within a broader context, presenting an unrealistic and grandiose context or application is misleading. As Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, a Christian psychologist, warns, “Christian scholars must refrain from participating in the constant rhetoric of ‘imminent breakthrough’ practiced by so much of the academic world. Christian scholars must state their conclusions tentatively, with the appropriate limitations and qualifications, balancing their respect for the working of common grace in the academy with a healthy sense of iconoclasm.”36 Unfortunately, since publications are often key to successful degrees, grants, scholarships, prestigious appointments, and promotions, it is tempting to submit a manuscript when the results are less than convincing, or conclusions are overstated. Keeping in mind God-honoring motivations can help shift the goal of publication numbers to sharing our findings accurately and fully.
Suggestion 8. Deal Humbly with Failure
As researchers progress towards publications, “failures” along the way are inevitable. In my lab, a common mantra I share with students is, “be cautiously optimistic, but emotionally detached.” While new trainees look at me quizzically and need a follow-up explanation, established researchers usually greet the quote with chuckles and nods of agreement. They know that research is full of experimental roadblocks and few “eureka” moments, but that it becomes draining and demoralizing if you take these failures personally and allow them to impact life outside of the lab. Therefore, I encourage new researchers to expect the challenges as an important part of the scientific process (while, of course, doing their work to the best of their abilities to minimize unnecessary difficulties). I frequently share stories of my own work including one summer during college when I performed all my molecular reactions with contaminated reagents, the graduate school year I spent collecting negative results, and the recent years I have tried unsuccessfully to master a necessary technique.
On the one hand, these failures are disheartening as they remind us of our limitations and weaknesses as humans. As Marsden shares, failure ought to be far from surprising for a Christian as, “those who take seriously that salvation is by God’s grace should not be surprised to find all sorts of failings even among the best of Christians and their institutions.”37 While Marsden is writing more broadly regarding university life, it is especially true of the sciences. We are using imperfect methods and limited techniques and testing incomplete hypotheses about a world created by a transcendent God! Ignoring this reality leads us to pride in the advances that we, and science in general, make. Such pride can negatively influence our research if our daily goal—consciously or subconsciously— deviates from “testing” our hypothesis to striving to “support” it.
On the other hand, armed with a humble perspective of our human ability (Suggestion 2) and the joy and contentment we find in Christ, we can keep a positive and consistent perspective throughout the ups and downs of our daily work. Tim Keller’s book, Every Good Endeavor, explores the freedom Christians have to work when we are content in Christ:
When your heart comes to hope in Christ and the future world he has guaranteed—when you are carrying his easy yoke—you finally have the power to work with a free heart. You can accept gladly whatever level of success and accomplishment God gives you in your vocation, because he has called you to it. You can work with passion and rest, knowing that ultimately the deepest desires of your heart . . . will be fulfilled when you reach your true country, the new heavens and the new earth.38
Rather than turn research into a disheartening experience, experimental failures or roadblocks can remind us of the beautiful complexity of creation, the brilliant creativity of our Creator, and the freedom and joy to discover that complexity. Personally, encouraging this mindset improves my ability to pursue my research with integrity. I can openly and honestly complete an experiment without sub-consciously biasing myself toward the expected or desired result.
Suggestion 9. Avoid Idolizing Productivity
With roots in the Dutch Reformed church, I am well versed in the Calvinist work ethic concept of discipline and hard work. Verses from Colossians 3 readily come to mind: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”39 The book of Proverbs is full of warnings against idleness. Indeed, scientific research progresses when we dedicate ourselves to excellent work that avoids wasted time and energy.
However, a call to work heartily is not an invitation to idolize productivity. Disciplined and efficient work is important, but it negatively influences our efforts if it is intended for selfish ambition. Such intention may not be deliberate, but—from my own experiences—can creep in through the competitive pressures of our research culture. Speaking in the broader context of college mentorship, Holmes echoes this sentiment:
Our modern economy suggests work is the chore of earning a living by filling a slot that anyone else could fill just as well, or perhaps a rat race to fulfillment and success by climbing the corporate ladder. I would expect the Christian college to help its students see how hollow, how unethical, how unbiblical are those attitudes and conceptions on which they depend. I would expect students to catch the vision of work as stewardship of God’s creation in service to others.40
My prayer is that Christian biologists can be counter-cultural, using a biblical perspective of work and research to work heartily without idolizing productivity.
As I strive to avoid idolizing progress and self-promotion, I personally benefit from God’s gift of a Sabbath. The Old and New Testaments teach us that a Sabbath is good as a rest from one’s regular work and an opportunity to worship, fellowship, minister, and rest. It is not simply the fatigue-induced crash or obligatory party after reaching a grant, manuscript, or thesis deadline. It is also more than a 5–7-year sabbatical cycle that encourages academic refreshment. Instead, I suggest a regular Sabbath pattern in the spirit of Leviticus 25:1–7, when the land was to lay fallow to replenish the land and aid the needy, or Deuteronomy 5, where the Sabbath is tied to a reminder that the Israelites were no longer slaves to their work in Egypt, or Hebrews 4, where we are reminded to live each day look- ing to Christ and the eternal Sabbath that He has established. As a professor at a teaching-focused, primarily undergraduate institution, I benefit from the cycle of the academic year, which provides me with concentrated summer scholarship times followed by research breaks as I devote myself to teaching. Every week, not only do I prioritize Sundays as a day for worship and fellowship, but I also seek to build in scheduled “interruptions” throughout the week that direct my focus towards others and God. These can be spiritual times such as communal prayer or simple fellowship events such as hosting open-house Friday pizza evenings.
God established a work-Sabbath cycle that balances ample work time with rest, stewardship of creation, love of our neighbor, and worship of God. With respect to research, Sabbath can provide physical rest and a regular reminder to avoid idolizing self-serving productivity and reorient our allegiance back to God.
Suggestion 10. Establish a Deepening and Widening Culture of Research Integrity
In his book Desiring the Kingdom, James Smith strongly argues that our practices influence the direction or object of our love. Smith suggests that our regular practices, which he terms habits or liturgies, have a formative influence on us and our understanding of the world. He challenges us to establish habits that will shape our love that reflects God’s Word. He says, “In other words, recognizing that there are no neutral practices . . . should push us to realize that perhaps some of the habits and practices that we are regularly immersed in are actually thick formative practices that over time embed in us desires for a particular vision for the good life.”41
Several of my research suggestions—especially Suggestions 5–9—are very practical and may seem like a list of rules to follow blindly. Considering Smith’s ideas, however, I hope these research practices—developed out of love for God— may strengthen and further this love. In other words, my hope is that the love- practice relationship I have been highlighting becomes a two-way street. Our love for God molds practices that undergird research integrity. Conversely, I envision these practices molding and shaping us so that we grow in our love and desire to serve God and our neighbor. It is my prayer that research may not only demonstrate our love for God and His truth but may also enhance and strengthen this bond.
Smith’s ideas further suggest that the culture within a research lab can have kingdom implications as it influences the direction of a researcher’s love. If true, a professor or research mentor who promotes research integrity can greatly impact trainees. From personal experience, formal instruction in the classroom and informal—but intentional—conversations and modeling of behavior in the research lab have triggered clear and thoughtful student growth. When students become discouraged by the complexity of a particular biological system, I gently nudge them to use that complexity as fodder for awe and worship of our brilliant Creator. Students frequently share bits of wisdom they have picked up in the lab about subtle temptations, experimental design with integrity, definitions of “good” research, and the motivations for doing research. Fostering a culture of integrity in our labs equips the next generation of biologists to enter their research mission field as change-makers. Not only do we enable future generations to do their research with integrity, but we also establish a culture of biology integrity that spurs love for God and fosters God-honoring research practices.
I readily admit that the larger research community would embrace most of my practical suggestions. Although they are not always followed, they are not new nor unique to Christian researchers. In many ways, they reflect the thought raised by Marsden when he asks, “Do Christian perspectives really make much difference in scholarship? After all, there is no Christian mathematics or no distinctly Christian way of measuring chemical reactions. So, what are we talking about?”42 Indeed, I am not suggesting that there is a special Christian way to complete biology research.
However, I believe a Christian perspective provides the motivation to complete research with integrity. As creatures ourselves, our allegiance is to the Creator. This commitment to Him helps stave off temptations to pursue our research with self-serving ambitions, rooting us in the desire to obey and to live out our love for Him. This motivates us to establish research practices that demonstrate integrity, revealing an accurate and deep understanding of creation that glorifies God and benefits our neighbor. “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”43
Cite this article
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- Malcolm R. Macleod et al., “Biomedical Research: Increasing Value, Reducing Waste,” The Lancet 383, no. 9912 (2014): 101, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736 (13) 62329-6.
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- Caroline Brall et al., “Research Ethics 2.0: New Perspectives on Norms, Values, and Integrity in Genomic Research in Times of Even Scarcer Resources,” Public Health Genomics 20, no. 1 (2017): 29, https://doi.org/10.1159/000462960.
- Macleod et al., “Biomedical Research,” 102.
- Ps. 47, Rev. 4:11 (ESV).
- Matt. 22:37–38.
- John 14:15.
- Deut. 29:29; italics added.
- Jan Boer, “Science without Faith Is Dead” (paper, Institute of Church and Society/Northern Area Office, Nigeria, 1993), 18, http://socialtheology.com/docs/faith-science-miracles-islam-sciencewofaith.pdf.
- Prov. 25:2, Ps. 111:2, see De Bres, The Belgic Confession, Article 2.
- Rom. 1:20, Ps. 19:1–3.
- Abraham Kuyper, You Can Do Greater Things Than Christ: Demons, Miracles, Healing and Science, trans. Jan H. Boer (Nigeria: Institute of Church and Society/Northern Area Office, 1991), 73, https://ccel.org/ccel/kuyper/greater/greater.i.html.
- Tim Morris and Donald N. Petcher, Science and Grace: God’s Reign in the Natural Sciences (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 267.
- Gen. 3:17–18.
- Rom. 8:22.
- See especially Rom. 8:19, 24, 28, 38–39.
- Morris and Petcher, Science and Grace, 223–224.
- John A. Ioannidis et al., “Increasing Value and Reducing Waste in Research Design, Conduct, and Analysis,” The Lancet 383, no. 9912 (2014): 166–75, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62227-8.
- Phil. 2:3.
- Arthur Frank Holmes, “The Idea of a Christian College,” Christianity Today 14, no. 22 (1970): 8.
- Ps. 24:1–2.
- Gen. 2:15.
- 1 Chron. 29:9, 11b–13.
- John 17:16–18; italics added.
- Boer, “Science without Faith Is Dead,” 23.
- George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), 57.
- 1 Cor. 1:21, 31, 30.
- Morris and Petcher, Science and Grace, 266.
- Morris and Petcher, Science and Grace, 267.
- Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, “Bringing Christian Criteria to Bear on Academic Work,” in Making Higher Education Christian: A History and Mission of Evangelical Colleges in America, ed. Joel A. Carpenter and Kenneth W. Shipps (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1987) 199.
- Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, 54.
- Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (New York, NY: Penguin, 2014), 250.
- Col. 3:23–24.
- Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 38.
- James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 83.
- Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, 9.
- . Rev. 4:11.