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The Federal Scientist-Multiple Roles and Moral Issues



Authoring Institution Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE)
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Contributor(s) Brian Schrag
Year 2000
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Rights The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) grants permission to use these case and commentary material with the citation indicated above.
Notes Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 4, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2000
Language English
Publisher Association for Practical and Professional Ethics
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  • Deborah G. Johnson

    Posted 14 years and 6 months ago

    Deborah G. Johnson 

    Georgia Institute of Technology

    This case presents three distinct situations, all having to do with research on and administration of the disposal of toxic wastes. The situations are separable in the sense that any one could arise (and would be difficult to resolve) independent of any other. Comparable situations arise in dealing with other kinds of research and decision making, but in this case the dilemmas are made all that more difficult because of the risks posed by toxic wastes and because of the degree of uncertainty about risks of this kind. I will analyze two of the situations by describing the core issue and then identify reasonable interpretations of the responsibilities of Alice, the central decision maker in this case.

    The first situation presents Alice's dilemma in reviewing technical reports and recommending action based on this review. The task involves making judgments about the promise of lines of research or the potential reliability of new methodologies. This is a daunting challenge in itself because it implicitly involves uncertainty; that is, judgments have to be made to create evidence and experience before they exist (or exist to a high degree). The task is all that more difficult in this case because it involves determining the risks of toxic waste sites, where errors in judgment can have catastrophic effects. So, Alice has a tough job.

    Dr. von Wegner has come up with a new methodology, and he presents it to Alice as an extremely viable methodology. Alice later finds, however, that the validity of the methodology is contested. The question is raised as to whether von Wegner had a responsibility to tell Alice about the controversy over his methodology.

    Two major issues are apparent here. One is the question of how Alice, or anyone in a situation like hers, should proceed when faced with controversy as well as uncertainty about new research and research techniques. The second question has to do with practices in science when it comes to research evaluation: How should researchers' responsibilities in reporting on their research be defined? Should they be expected to present their research in the best possible light? Or should they be expected to disclose any controversy or uncertainty surrounding their research?

    I will make some suggestions on how to think about these questions. On the first question, it seems clear that Alice ultimately will have to use her judgment. Because of the uncertainty involved, a clear right answer is not going to emerge. Her best strategy is to gather as much information as she can, from von Wegner, as well as his critics. In the end, she will just have to make a tough call. Perhaps what is most important here is that she be able to explain to others why she has made the judgment she makes. Good reasons will help her defend her judgment whether she recommends funding for further development of the methodology and it turns out to be unusable or she does not fund the research and it turns out to be the best methodology produced - by other funding agencies.

    On the second question, it seems most important that a policy be adopted so that all parties know what to expect and can determine when standards have been violated. My hunch is that it is better (for science and the public) to set a standard of scientists representing their research in the best possible light and not expecting them to disclose controversy. Scientists are less likely than others to do a good job of explaining controversy over their work.

    Moreover, it seems better to have the expectation that someone in Alice's position should seek the advice of others before embracing a methodology presented by its originator. This issue is precisely why journals and funding agencies use a system of peer review when making decisions about what to publish or fund. To be sure, the process may eliminate some research that would have been beneficial, but in the long run more good will come. I am not going to comment on the second situation described in this case. The occurrence of a tremor and publication of new estimations of the risks of a potential site exacerbate the difficulty of the situation. They make Alice's decision more difficult, but they do not add a new element.

    The third part of the case seems to pose a complex conflict of interest. Alice has two roles. Her job as an employee of the federal government requires her to review research and methodologies for toxic waste disposal. Implicitly this responsibility entails making judgments that are in the best interest of the United States. As a graduate student enrolled in a university, Alice has another role. In her role as a student, she is expected to seek the best education she can get, to seek the good opinion of her teachers and to seek good grades. While the federal government may benefit from Alice getting a graduate education, when she goes to school she acts for herself. Her role as a student and her role as an employee have distinct responsibilities and values.

    Initially the two roles do not conflict, and Alice can continue to keep them separate. However, if Alice decides to work with Dr. Sharpo on her dissertation, then Alice should not evaluate Sharpo's proposal for funding from her agency. Similarly, if she decides to evaluate Sharpo's proposal for funding, then she should not chose him for a dissertation adviser. Either way, she will appear to be acting/judging with a conflict of interest. If Sharpo is Alice's dissertation adviser, than he is expected to make judgments about Alice on the basis of her work as a graduate student. However, if he knows that she has recommended his grant, he may feel grateful to her and he may be reluctant to evaluate her harshly for fear of jeopardizing future funding. Similarly, if Alice chooses Sharpo as her adviser, her judgment about funding of his proposal may appear to be tainted. She is supposed to make such judgments with an eye to the best interests of her agency (and ultimately the United States), but in her role as student, she will want to please Sharpo. Indeed, as his graduate student, she could even be offered an assistantship under the grant.

    I admit this conclusion is disturbing because Alice's desire to work with Sharpo and her desire to fund his proposal may arise from the same fair appraisal of the potential of his research. Because she thinks the research is so promising, she wants to work with him and fund his research. The problem is that she has two roles and there is no way to be sure that the circumstances of one role will not inappropriately influence her judgment in the other role.

    Alice should either remove herself from the decision about Sharpo's proposal or she should stop working with him at the university.

    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 4, 2000 

    edited by Brian Schrag

  • Anonymous  Participant

    Posted 14 years and 6 months ago

    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 4, 2000 

    edited by Brian Schrag

    This case raises several issues regarding the multiple, complex, and often competing, roles a scientist must play. In addition to responsibility to herself and her career in science, Alice is also responsible for protecting public health and safety in her role as an environmental geologist employed by the Toxic Waste Disposal Administration. As a student, Alice has taken on an additional role, which poses a potential conflict of interest with her job. We will examine each of these responsibilities in turn as we evaluate the ethical questions raised during a typical day in the life of a federal scientist.

    Funding Research

    Alice's first ethical problem arises from her position as a federal employee. Acting as an agent of the federal government, Alice must evaluate the adequacy of research proposals to answer questions about the safety of a potential toxic waste disposal site. In conducting research on which to base recommendations to protect public health, scientists working in environmental science are faced with difficult decisions. For example, Alice's recommendations could expose future generations to potentially disastrous environmental consequences. In order to make these recommendations, scientists and engineers are being asked to predict the behavior of natural and engineered systems many generations in the future, which raises ethical as well as technical issues. In fact, the social ramifications of application of technology often are more difficult to solve than the technical conundrums. However, Alice knows that decisions on these societal issues must be based on sound science. The results of this scientific research will be used as input to the decision to site a toxic waste site or abandon the site. In either case, the decision will be litigious and controversial.

    Decisions on what research to fund and how to use research data are difficult, but they must be based on honest communication on all aspects of scientific technique and application. As funding becomes more difficult to obtain, researchers are under more pressure to oversell their expertise and techniques. The Toxic Waste Disposal Administration is paying Alice and von Wegner for their professional judgment. In order to be able to rely on their judgment, the agency must have confidence in the results of the research, which includes trust in the honesty in the descriptions of the method, its applications and limitations, and the ultimate validity of the results obtained from the method. If any one of these steps is at issue, the chain of confidence in the scientific credibility of the process is lost. Professional scientists and engineers have unique knowledge, skills, and expertise; therefore, their judgment is sought and believed.1 Although Alice is also a geologist, as a geochemist, von Wegner has specialized knowledge of a highly specialized method in geochemistry. Von Wegner is a senior principal investigator, a well-established scientist with a strong reputation; Alice is working in a federal bureaucracy, reviewing research proposals. Of course, Alice must be competent and able to understand the general application of the method in order to recommend funding based on that determination; however, von Wegner also has a responsibility to candidly share the potential shortcomings or controversies surrounding his method. "The progress of science as a whole depends on the communication and integration of individual specialized results."2 Independent of the results of the research regarding the safety of the site, von Wegner should have indicated the drawbacks of his new method.

    Public Perception of Risk

    The second ethical conundrum that confronts Alice is the role of the media in shaping public opinion and the use of science to further a political agenda (in this case, an environmental group that opposes toxic waste siting and uses science to justify that opposition). In our complex technological society, the public relies on scientists to give us objective facts about risk. The media play a critical role in communicating these facts to us. Scientists' responsibility goes beyond the development of theory and the correct use of technique; they also have a responsibility to explain the results and implications of their research to the public. As Harris, Pritchard and Rabins state, "The doctrine of informed consent implies that engineers have a responsibility to promote the conditions in which individuals can give informed consent to risks they encounter as a result of technology. They must do what they can to ensure that the public understands the risks associated with technology and can consent to those risks, especially when they are unusual."3

    Although we are increasingly skeptical about the veracity of information we get from the media, the fact remains that they are our primary source of information. Under pressure to sell papers and advertising time, our national media have become more and more focused on controversy, complex applications, and perceived risks from science. Although our modern lives are actually much safer than they were 50 years ago, the complexity of this technology means that life is no longer simple.4 Adding to the complex misinformation that the public must interpret are special interest groups and lobbyists who may use partial truths or modify reports to garner support, as in this case, the environmental group that manipulates estimates of the risk of earthquakes in order to stop the toxic waste site. Engineers and scientists must recognize that the results of their work can be misused by advocates for political agendas. We have a moral obligation to inform the public, and Alice, working through correct channels at her agency, has the responsibility to explain the risks from seismic activity on the toxic waste site in an objective, clear, and understandable way.

    Conflict of Interest

    Alice's final ethical quandary concerns a potential conflict of interest between her federal job and her role as a student at the university. In general, these two roles would not result in conflict; however, Alice has been asked to review a research proposal from a professor at the university that is directly related to her responsibilities at the agency. Also, the research topic is closely related to Alice's area of academic interest and could form the subject for her dissertation research. The ethical dilemma exits because Alice's interests may be in conflict: as a federal scientist, she could recommend funding that would benefit her at the university. Scientists are expected to render impartial professional judgements based on a critical objective review of the evidence;5 can Alice's judgment be objective if she can gain from her recommendations? Although Alice may be able to provide an objective, impartial review and recommendations based on science and not personal gain, her professional judgment may be biased due to the conflict. Even the appearance of a conflict can be deleterious to science. An added element of conflict is the potential for the successful application of the bacterium to affect the need for a toxic waste site.

    Kovac discusses three ways to avoid conflicts of interests:

    1. to avoid them;

    2. to divest yourself of the external influence; and

    3. to publicly reveal the influences.6

    Alice would not have to quit her job at the Toxic Waste Disposal Administration or stop taking classes at the university in order to avoid the conflict of interest; less drastic approaches would allow Alice to remain employed and pursue her academic interests. Alice should notify her supervisor and Professor Sharpo of the conflict of interest, and recuse herself from reviewing the universityÀs proposal.


    • C. E. Harris, M. S. Pritchard and M. J. Rabin, Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1995), p. 211.

    • Sigma Xi, Honor in Science (Research Triangle Park, N. C.: Sigma Xi, 1991), p.7.

    • Harris, Pritchard and Rabins, Engineering Ethics, p.244.

    • D. R. Williams, What is Safe? The Risks of Living in a Nuclear Age (Cambridge, Unite Kingdom: The Royal Society of Chemistry, 1998), p.4.

    • Jeffrey Kovac, The Ethical Chemist: Case Studies in Scientific Ethics, Case B-4A, rev. ed. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1995).

    • Ibid.

Cite this page: "The Federal Scientist-Multiple Roles and Moral Issues" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 4/12/2006 OEC Accessed: Thursday, October 8, 2020 <>