We cover science ethics in meetings in our senior seminar course (Physics 399). Students are assigned to two or three person groups, which are given background readings and told to guide a discussion of selected topics from our Blackboard's Course Document folder on Science Ethics. They all read the National Academy publication On Being A Scientist, available online, plus a group assignment (several additional readings drawn from these below):
Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy, On being a scientist : a guide to
“What's Wrong with these Publications? or, Some Pathologies of Scientific Authorship”J. R. Macdonald, Physics Today 46, 51 (1993).
Each group presents a summary of their part of the readings, then leads a discussion of their assigned topic, using as a springboard scenarios posed in On Being A Scientist and below.
Group 1: Scientific fraud—taking credit & responsibility for scientific research
Read these articles:
“Winning streak brought awe and then doubt” R. F. Service, Science 297, 34 (2002).
“Next Steps in the Schön Affair” D. Kennedy, Science 298, 495 (2002)
“Lawrence Berkeley Lab Concludes that Evidence of Element 118 Was a Fabrication” B. Schwarzschild, Physics Today 55, 15 (2002)
“What's in a picture? The temptation of image manipulation” M. Rossner and K. M. Yamada, Journal of Cell Biology 166, 11 (2004).
“It may look authentic – Here’s how to tell it isn’t” N. Wade, New York Times Jan. 24, F1 (2006)
“It’s not quite so easy” A. Jason, letter to the editor, New York Times Jan. 31, F4 (2006)
And lead discussions on these science ethics quandaries from On Being a Scientist::
The Selection of data box pg. 5
Fabrication in a Grant Application pg. 17
Discussion point: How far can one acceptably manipulate and change data, imaging or otherwise, while still adhering to the tacit rules of doing valid science?
Group 2: How does the presence of military, industrial and government funding influence the practice of science?
Read these articles:
“RESEARCH CONDUCT: Lessons of the Stem Cell Scandal” M. K. Cho, G. McGee, D. Magnus, Science311, 614 (2006).
KOREAN CLONING SCANDAL: Prosecutors Allege Elaborate Deception and Missing Funds D. Y. Wohn and D. Normile, Science 312, 980 (2006)
Lead discussions on these science ethics quandaries from On Being a Scientist:
Industrial Sponsorship of Academic Research pg. 9
The Sharing of Research Materials pg. 11
A Conflict of Interest pg. 8
Group 3: Science & power: how do you weigh your responsibility to larger issues as a scientist?
Lead discussions on these science ethics quandaries from On Being a Scientist:
Who Should Get Credit for the Discovery of Pulsars? pg.14
And these “science ethics quandaries”:
Funding quandary #1
Donna used to be a thoroughly happy physics graduate student in a major research university. She was able to score a plum research position in her favored research group, and now she’s successfully fabricating mesoscopic circuitry that enables one to make very low-noise measurements of weak infrared signals. She’s always thought about this project in terms of the exciting basic science that underlies it and the fun of fabricating the devices, but recently her feelings have changed.
Donna never had to think about who funds this research before this week, when her supervisor announced that their government sponsor, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration) will come to visit later that month, and that Donna will have to give a presentation about her research to the visiting reviewers, including a panel of military officers. A quick Google search revealed, to her surprise, that infrared sensing is a major concern of the military, since it enables them to detect the hot plumes of distant missiles.
Now Donna is conflicted about her project. Her devices are far from ready to be used in such applications. Frankly, Donna is not even convinced that this technology will ever be used in any applications, because the devices are fragile and must be kept at very low temperatures. The basic science and the project itself have not changed, but she does not know how she feels about the possibility that her work may contribute toward military applications in the future. When she brings these issues up with the postdoc she works with most closely, he responds that he is fully supportive of the role of defense research. How else will the U.S. maintain its edge in the world militarily and outwit terrorists and rogue states? What are your thoughts about how to handle this situation?
Funding quandary #2
Ellwood is an (untenured) assistant professor at Wallywell University, an institution with historical roots in Quakerism. Recently, he and his collaborators received an exciting solicitation from the Department of Energy (DOE) to submit a grant proposal for a program closely related to his own research field. However, even a cursory reading of this announcement makes it apparent that the DOE, the major U.S. funder of nuclear weapons research, is primarily interested in this research because of potential (but he feels far-fetched) military applications to missile defense. His institution will not allow him to accept defense funding, but there is no provision preventing him from taking DOE grants, although the clear intent of the rule seems to argue against it.
Ellwood discusses this topic with his colleagues while he thinks it over intently. His off-campus collaborators point out that he could simply have them receive and process the grant, so his institution need never handle the funds. This is what Ellwood’s faculty colleagues at his institution routinely do when they accept Department of Defense funding, after all. A colleague at Wallywell points out that it’s all taxpayer money anyway, whether it comes from the DOD, DOE or the National Science Foundation (NSF). Why not just take the money and do good science with it? Another colleague points out that his physics colleague Judson’s “pure” research in mathematical econophysics could easily lead to a collapse of the global economy—surely doing basic research with implausible military applications is better than that? A biologist notes that her major funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute derives from a foundation that gets all it money from a former defense contractor, and that has never prevented the institution from accepting that funding source.
How would you advise Ellwood?
You are a senior who meets with a group of alumni on a trip to another city. At the table are three alumni, Dharma, Gene and Nathan, who have followed very different paths in life since graduating six years ago. Each is eager to argue about the superiority of his or her choices in life.
Dharma is a graduate student at University of Washington who is in the final year of her PhD in physics. She works at a major accelerator laboratory doing particle physics. While she loves her work, Dharma is also the first person to say that it has absolutely no practical applications. It won’t cure cancer or alleviate poverty or ensure world peace, she says, just enhance our understanding of elementary particles and cosmology. She feels strongly that doing basic science is its own justification, and that science is inherently amoral. By that she means that if applications, positive or negative, arise from her research developing the world’s fastest and most sophisticated particle detectors, she has no responsibility for those outcomes. She also feels that scientists should not factor such concerns into their daily lives, since it’s hopeless to anticipate what the future holds. She points out that, for example, basic research can have military outcomes (as in the development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs), while applied military research can contribute to civilian applications (such as life-saving medical imaging technologies.)
Gene did an internship with the American Physical Society just after college, and then followed that into a career in nonprofits and public policy. Gene’s jobs have mostly focused on environmental issues, including lobbying for alternative energy technologies for the Sierra Club and writing policy papers on these issues for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In another position, he worked as a Congressional staffer for a member of the House of Representatives who was chair of a major budgetary committee. Gene feels passionately that scientists need to worry about the impact of their research and its outcomes on all aspects of life. He does not understand how any educated person, let alone a scientist, can ignore these issues. He’s so worried about climate change that he feels it’s almost irresponsible for someone like Dharma to concern herself with abstract issues, or for Nathan (whose story follows below) to make inessential consumer goods, while such life-or-death matters are at stake.
Nathan earned an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Business, with a specialization in technology applications. He feels strongly that his work as a manager in a large consumer products manufacturing company is on a higher moral plane than any of the others. He is responsible for a company that employs thousands of people in well-paying, secure jobs with good benefits, tries when possible (which is rarely) to reduce how intensively they use energy and materials in their manufacturing lines, and conducts his business affairs at a high level of probity. (He also earns ten times the salary of anyone else at the table, even in a bad year.) Nathan argues that his impact in reducing his company’s carbon footprint in even miniscule ways and creating good jobs far outweighs what he feels are only hypothetical benefits of doing basic science or what he skeptically calls “do good” policy and nonprofit work.
What are your reactions to the alumni arguments about their paths?
What are the goals of hiring?
Margot is a professor in a large research university. Her department has an open position for a tenure-track assistant professor, the first in many years, so she is very excited that her department might finally achieve a more diverse profile. (Much as she appreciates her colleagues, and fair-minded as they are, she is concerned that an all male faculty with no ethnic or racial diversity sends the wrong message to potential majors. Indeed, this is something their students point out to them on occasion.) The ad for the new position specifies only that it should be an experimental physicist, with no targeted fields of research. Margot and her colleagues on the search committee have interviewed six strong candidates and now are deciding to whom to offer the position. Two scientists immediately rose to the very top of the pool, each with stellar accomplishments and letters of recommendations. Everyone on the committee agrees that both candidates have roughly comparable backgrounds, in terms of their previous appointments, research experience, and publication records. However, the two work on different problems with different approaches. One, Wu, works on the International Linear Collider as part of a detector team investigating the origins of particle/antiparticle assymmetry, while Nho does tabletop AMO (atomic molecular optics) experiments that explore fundamental issues in particle physics. Given this exciting research profile, naturally both candidates have supporters, but among the search committee, a strong preference has arisen for hiring the candidate who does accelerator physics, something no one else in their department works on. They point out that tabletop experimenters make up the majority of current experimentalists in the department. Several department members on the committee are sincerely excited about the new opportunities this opens up for their students and for the impact this will have on their curricular offerings. Margot's problem is that Nho is a woman and Wu a man. To her, just as they have finally they have identified a female candidate deemed the equal of the male candidate, a preference has been expressed for the man based on newly rised criteria. When she expresses this concern, her colleagues are affronted: they have very clear arguments for Wu that have nothing to do with the fact that he is a man. Indeed, several of the committee members have long been on record as favoring expanding into accelerator physics (although, as Margot points out, this was not in the ad) and all have excellent records as being supportive of women.
How would you weigh these preferences in this situation were you on the search committee?