Thursday, October 27, 2005

An appeal to my readers

Yeah, I'm talkin' to you!

My department has become the Source of All Required Ethics Training for a number of departments, programs, and colleges at my university, and this seems to flow more in some cases from external pressures (e.g., what the accrediting agency or funding agency requires) than from a deep respect for the value of a philosophical grounding in ethics. Of course, I have blogged about this a little.

But now, in a setting where you all are not pressing my department for an ethics course that will achieve some necessary end for you, I would like to ask for your honest opinions:

What kind of ethics training does a scientist really need?

If you are a scientist (or scientist-in-training), what pieces of information are most useful in your day-to-day scientific activities from the point of view of being a responsible scientist? Is it an ethical theory? A piece of policy? A rule of thumb for deciding how to go forward in a tricky situation? Where or how did you learn it? Are there aspects of being a "responsible" scientist that you wish you had learned more about, and if so, what are they?

Do you think being a responsible scientist in your particular field puts special requirements on you, or creates particular challenges? (I'm interested in a broad swath of "science" here -- including experimental and theoretical sciences, natural sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, and computer science and mathematics.)

Another way to cast the question is: If you (or a student in your field) had to take a class in ethics, what would you put in that class to make it maximally relevant?

Or: What do you want all the scientists in your field to understand about what it means to be a responsible scientist?

If you are a non-scientist, I'm guessing you're here because you have some interest in how science interacts with the other stuff going on in our world (such as policy decisions, education, etc.). Let me put a related question to you all:

What do you want scientists to know about ethics/how to be a responsible scientist? You can, of course, answer based on your favorite dystopian vision of what happens to everyone else if scientist don't have or don't use this crucial ethical information.

You can respond in the comments, or by email to me (dr.freeride AT gmail DOT com). If you could identify yourself as a scientist (with your field) or a non-scientist, that would be helpful.

Thanks for your feedback!


At 2:50 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

I can only really comment on the ethics in science course that I took 4-5 years ago, based upon the book Scientific Integrity: An
Introductory Text With Cases
, by Francis Macrina, and sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology.

In the course I took, we outlined what constituted clear examples of scientific misconduct, as well as proper scientific conduct, in the areas outlined (as chapter titles) in the book I just mentioned. However, the difficult part of ethics in science is of course the not-so-clearcut cases, so both the book and the course I took spent the majority of the time discussing a list of real-world instances across the country over the last ~40 years, looking at my campus in particular. In this way, we were able to identify the pros and cons of particular strategies for handling ethical dilemnas we might come across in our careers.

Another source we used was Integrity in Science, with a thorough database of science ethics cases.

While I don't really know of alternative approaches to teaching ethics in science, this approach seemed useful and appropriate to me.

At 1:12 AM, Blogger Joe said...

i do chemistry research as a practicing scientist. i guess the one thing i try and keep in mind is that i should be brutally honest, something i read in a feynman book that resonated with me. by being honest i mean things like: write everything in your lab book, don't treat it as a 'best copy' of loose leaf notes, always ask yourself if you could stand in front of a room full of people and defend the decision that you've just made, don't let anyone pressure you to stretch the conclusions your data can support in a publication etc. at the end of the day, science's one big asset is that we accept a concept of 'noble failure', i don't know if there is a more coherent theory of this but i always like the fact that as a group, we can appreciate that someone may be going way out on a limb but as long as they approach it openly and honestly (ethically), it has a right to exist as a line of enquiry. i believe that it is this allowance of failure that gives science its great moments - that despite a pet theory being given decades of support, occasionally the proponents accept that they were wrong, and the rest of us respect them for the admission, not admonish them for being wrong all this time. as sagan (and feynman again i think) said, this doesn't happen often but it does happen, and that sets science apart from a lot of other 'trust' based institutions like politics, religion or finance. once you start to tinker with this machinary, you break down this 'commons of trust'. imagine if every publication on nicotine was sponsored by a tobacco company - would you trust that group to be brutally honest? can you imagine them admitting that they may have been wrong for years? i can't, and to me, any ethics in science needs to support this idea of promoting and respecting trust and honesty.

At 6:17 AM, Blogger Kyle said...

Firstly, I managed to get a BS in physics without taking a single scientific ethics course. There were a couple of 100 level philosophy courses, but the class was too dumb to teach anything. To be honest, I'm not sure what ethics training a scientist needs. Nor am I entirely certain what ethics training would affect the way a scientist operates.

I work in industry and in a field that is not directly related to human health. I can't falsify or invent data; if my boss didn't find out, and if the investors missed it (they are really sharp folk), then the customer would find out. The big ethical concerns I meet are environmental, and that of intellectual property. Therefore to answer your question on what scientists in my field need to know, it would be what effects their work have on the immediate world around them, and to teach critical thinking (and law) about what constitues intellectual property.

At 3:39 PM, Blogger Bughunter said...

I've never really seen how you can 'teach' ethics in the same way that you can 'teach' biochemistry or signal transduction cascades. By a certain time in a young scientists career, they know what is right and what is wrong in terms of scientific conduct. What varies is how the researcher feels they should act when put in a situation where their sense of ethics are put to the test. There are always going to be a few 'high flyer' types who blatantly fake data and manufacture papers to advance their career, but I would be willing to bet that most scientific misconduct occurs at a very low level (the 'extra' replicate, graph tweaking, etc.), and that the motivations are much more mundane (pressure to produce positive results, need to please graduate supervisors, need simply to hold onto a job and keep food on the table).

The best way to convey good ethical scientific behavior is to target the top levels, not the bottom ranks. It is the department heads, senior scientists and graduate supervisors that new scientists look to for example, and who set the style of administration which can create or remove incentives to massage data or take shortcuts. Its nice to talk about the (good) advice of established scientists like Feynman, but the real ethical conflicts will be faced by underpaid graduate students trying to support their families, whose supervisors want to see a positive result or their contracts will not be renewed and their studies terminated. Preventing these situations, rather than sermonizing, will go a long way to produce better papers.


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