Responsible conduct of research in physics

As part of the Colorado School of Mines’ dedication to responsible research, the Ethics Across Campus (EAC) committee, according to their website, primarily seeks to “promote, extend and deepen the understanding of ethical issues in relation to applied science and engineering education and research.” The EAC works closely with many departments across campus to develop responsible research practices, also known as Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR). As part of RCR, graduate students in the physics program are required to attend ethics seminars. One such seminar took place during a weekly physics colloquium. Professor Reuben Collins emphasized how ethics and physics go together, reminiscing how he decided not to work for the defense industry because of their research practices. Although most physicists prefer to conduct research alone in their lab, most research involves working with a variety of people and it is important to understand ethics as part of research practices.

Professor Carl Mitcham led the seminar, opening with the distinction between morals and ethics. According to Mitcham, no one can do without morals, but it is ethics that are the critical reflection upon those morals. He developed a term called “ethics experts.” Unlike doctors or engineers who make decisions for us, an ethics expert helps people come to their own interpretation of morals. In a sense, Mitcham argues scientists and engineers are their own ethics experts because they must reflect on their morals when conducting any kind of scientific research.

So in reflecting upon morals, Mitcham introduces three frameworks to interpret experiences and morals. The first, Virtue Ethics, was introduced by Aristotle and stresses the cardinal virtues of temperance, prudence, courage and justice. The second, Deontology, was introduced by German philosopher Immanuel Kant and proposes the Categorical Imperative, which looks at the nature of the actions themselves. The third, Utilitarianism, was developed by John Stuart Mill to analyze decisions that would either maximize happiness for the most amount of people or minimize the amount of unhappiness.

The choice then for a scientist or engineer in research is to determine which of the three frameworks to use in a moral dilemma. There are two ways for each framework to be applied – to means or processes or to ends or goals. The first focuses on a person’s actions and emphasizes doing the right thing no matter the consequence, which most closely matches Deontology. The second, a very utilitarian application, dictates the importance of consequences rather than action.

After laying down the foundation of ethics, Mitcham asked, “Now why should scientists and engineers care about ethics?” Research affects people all around the world and Mitcham argues that it is important that ethics training in all areas of research spread first throughout all areas of the government and then throughout the world. He predicts this will happen within the next ten years. As an example, bringing standard ethical procedures to peer review of papers could increase the flow of information worldwide.

Mitcham introduced a case study focusing on the ethical decisions made by scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. Even after Victory in Europe Day, the atomic bomb project continued without any of the scientists walking away. Even years later not one of them could explain why they did not walk away. Mitcham argues that by intertwining ethics with research through seminars like this and others that the EAC hosts across campus, the integrity of scientific research is preserved and helps people make better decisions.

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