It's a strange case of art or, at any rate, TV foreshadowing life.
University of Utah President Chase N. Peterson appeared on the PBS series "Ethics in America," taped last year. The program, on medical ethics and research, was broadcast on KBYU Wednesday evening and some time ago on the U.'s KUED Channel 7.The series convenes noted experts in a given area and the host/interrogator puts forth an ethical dilemma for their discussion. In the segment in which Peterson appeared, the problem was an AIDS patient seeking new breakthroughs in medical treatment.
But toward the end of the program, the simulation turned very near to what Peterson and U. officials have just gone through with the announcement of their cold nuclear fusion experiment.
Since the show was videotaped last year, and the U.'s announcement of the fusion experiment was made March 23, the program's producers and writers had no knowledge of what was to befall the U.
Still, it was very strange.
For example, in PBS' hypothetical situation, a scientist makes a breakthrough discovery of an AIDS vaccine - like the U.'s B. Stanley Pons' breakthrough fusion experiment.
Another scientist finds out about the breakthrough before it's made public and asks the scientist to join in cooperative research - just as BYU physicist Steven Jones' found out about Pons' experiment and asked for cooperative research.
"Should there be cooperation?" asked the TV host. Many on the panel said they wouldn't cooperate, that the proprietary discovery was too great. Others said in the name of true science, the researcher on the verge of the discovery should help his competitive colleague. (In real life, Pons didn't cooperate with Jones.)
The question then posed was if the breakthrough should be revealed through the mass media or through publication in a scientific journal with traditional peer review. Most on the panel said it was only ethical to go the scientific route.
Peterson didn't comment on that question during the program. But months later, saying he had a proprietary duty, Peterson called a press conference to announce Pons' experiment and then distributed a research document. (Peterson says the U. contacted the scientific journal in which the Pons' experiment was to be published before the U.'s press conference, and the journal's editors agreed the U. could go public with the experiment).
The question was put to Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman (whose column is published in the Deseret News) whether she would publish the story of the anti-AIDS vaccine before it appeared in the scientific press. She said she would.
To that, the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine said he probably wouldn't run the scientific paper _ even though it was proven great science _ if the researcher talked to the general press first.
Pons, Peterson and other U. officials have been criticized by the scientific community for calling a press conference before publication of the U.'s experiment in a scientific journal. While Pons submitted his paper to the scientific journal "Nature" the day after the press conference, he later withdrew the paper before publication when editors demanded a substantial rewrite. His work was published in the Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry.
Despite the criticism hurled at Pons over the past month, he insists he'd still make the announcement the same way.
But his British colleague, Martin Fleischmann of the University of Southampton, said in a radio interview that he had not wanted to announce the fusion process until next year. But because of the importance of the work, the scientists had to "publish and be damned."