This case discusses the problems faced by a researcher when trying to reconcile faith with science, personal convictions and professional activities.
From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 4, 2000
edited by Brian Schrag
From childhood, Ann had an aptitude for the sciences. She became fascinated by solar energy when her uncle gave her a solar-powered toy for her birthday one year. As she progressed through school, she began to read about photovoltaics, and she imagined that one day she would be an inventor or a scientist in this area.
When Ann entered college, she enrolled in a materials science program with the intention of eventually becoming a researcher in photovoltaics. She was attracted to the field because it would give her a chance to reach her potential as a scientist, and because this area of research would enhance people's lives by leading to a viable technology that would eliminate dependence on nonrenewable energy sources and contribute to the development of a sustainable world.
Ann was raised in a Christian home and chose to continue to practice her faith in college. She began to ponder how her religious and scientific backgrounds complemented and conflicted with each other, but not to the extent that she significantly changed her routine in either discipline.
During her senior year, Ann applied to various Ph.D. programs in materials science. As she had a strong record, which included original research and several academic honors, she was contacted by several schools. Professor John Doe in Materials Science at Engineering University invited Ann for an interview. They discussed a variety of research projects, including a key aspect of the development of a pliable, lightweight solar panel, which would greatly enhance the performance of solar-powered vehicles. He said that he was pursuing grants for each project and expected that at least one would be funded in time for her to begin research after her first year of coursework. Doe did not discuss the agencies from which he sought funding, and Ann did not raise the issue.
After this visit, Ann had a favorable overall impression of Doe and the Materials Science Department at Engineering U. She knew that Doe was a renowned researcher, and that successful work under his mentorship would help her to establish a successful career. Ultimately, she accepted admission as a Ph.D. candidate at Engineering U. During her first year as a graduate student, Ann was supported by a teaching assistantship and concentrated on her coursework. She did not begin any research, but she did officially nominate Doe as her committee chair.
At the same time, Ann also began to take an academic approach to her faith and attended talks and courses on various topics. In particular, she studied nonviolence, and she found herself drawn to its principles. She listened to many convincing arguments that indicated the necessity for Christians to decline to participate in violence and questioned the validity of the Church's just war theory. One effect of this study was that she became further interested in solar technology, for she came to see control of fossil resources as the object of many nations' aggressions.
The following summer, Doe invited Ann into his office. "Ann," he said, "I have great news. The Air Force has just approved the grant to study the soft photovoltaic. Seems they have an interest in these materials to operate satellites for reconnaissance and missile guidance. As you know, anything that reduces weight and improves the conversion of solar energy into electricity is a boon to satellite technology."
"That's. . . great," replied Ann, a bit unsure of herself. "Out of curiosity, what other applications exist for this work?"
Doe looked mildly puzzled at this response, thought for a few seconds, and said, "Satellites are the way of communications in the future. Even now, people are depending on them to become more mobile and yet stay connected." He went on to cite other examples. At one point, he noted that individual satellites simultaneously perform civilian and military functions.
Ann went home wondering if she could begin to work on this project, and what alternatives she might have.
Does Ann's dilemma change if:
Consider the extent to which Ann and Doe have entered into a contractual relationship (written, verbal, implicit). It may help to draw upon your own experience as a student or faculty member.
University teaching, especially at the graduate level, is influenced by faculty research. Research is typically funded by external organizations that have their own agendas (corporations, government agencies, nonprofit institutions).
The medical profession is generally agreed that the advancement of knowledge - even with the intent of extending and enhancing life - is unethical if research deliberately compromises human life or health. Guidelines to govern research on human subjects emphasize protection of the individual. This philosophy may be generalized as follows: It is unethical to enhance the life or lifestyle of certain individuals at the expense of the basic health, will, or dignity of other individuals.
Consider now that civilian technology (transportation systems, computers, etc.) has historically been developed as a result of military endeavors. Given the generalization stated above:
Posted 12 years and 11 months ago
Michael Pritchard Western Michigan University
This case raises a number of very important ethical issues for graduate students and their faculty advisers and mentors. For graduate students, it raises questions about what, in good conscience, they commit themselves to as researchers. For faculty, it raises questions about their responsibilities in advising and mentoring their graduate students.
All of this is complicated by two basic factors:
The first factor is evident in Ann's situation. At the very time that she is undertaking her graduate studies, she is reflecting on her basic values and commitments. The second factor comes into play when Ann realizes that the particular religious perspective to which she finds herself attracted is not one she can assume is widely shared by those in her chosen field of study, let alone in society generally. Regardless of how convinced she may be that the engineering profession for which she is preparing ought to share her values, she cannot reasonably expect that profession to adopt her particular perspective. Rather, she must determine whether she, in good conscience, can fit into a profession that embraces a great diversity of views on matters of fundamental importance to individual professionals, and to society in general. That does not mean that members of the engineering profession share no common moral ground, but it does mean that Ann must realize that this common ground will not be a common religious ground. Virtually any profession can be expected to accept freedom of (even from) religion.
At the same time, advisers and mentors of graduate students need to realize that their students are in the process of sorting out their personal and professional priorities. A professional code of ethics provides a value framework within which members of a profession are expected to operate. However, at best, a code of ethics will express the highest common denominator that may be applied to members. It cannot be expected to do justice to everything that matters morally to individuals in their professional lives. So, although Ann should not expect the engineering profession to endorse pacifism as a moral requirement, it is reasonable for her to expect her advisers and mentors to help her determine to what extent engineering can endorse her right not to participate in engineering research that opposes her pacifism. Nevertheless, for this expectation to be reasonable, she must be forthcoming enough that her advisers and mentors are able to understand that she does have pacifist concerns.
What should be clear, however, is that advisers and mentors have a responsibility to encourage their students to wrestle with questions of personal and social responsibility in engineering before they have crossed a threshold that might compromise their integrity.
At this point we can ask how well Ann and Doe have done in meeting their responsibilities. At their initial interview, Ann gave no indication to Doe that she might have scruples about working on projects that could have military applications. Doe gave no indication that among the grants he was pursuing, at least some would be sponsored by the military. It might never have occurred to Ann that the sorts of projects Doe described could have military applications. It might never have occurred to Doe that Ann would have any scruples about working on projects that could have military applications; after all, links between engineering and the military are commonplace. In retrospect, however, both Ann and Doe might wish they had been more forthcoming in that first interview. This is a lesson both can apply to the future.
By the end of the first year of graduate study, Ann sees things differently than when she began. In addition to studying engineering, she has been studying religion, particularly Christianity. Now she has questions that perhaps she was not prepared to ask a year earlier. At the same time, Doe has received a grant relevant to Ann's research interests, the soft photovoltaic. Fortunately, Doe identifies the Air Force as sponsor. Ann then asks questions about the possible applications of this research and wonders whether she should join Doe in working on the Air Force grant.
At this point, Ann and Doe do not seem to have entered into a contractual relationship, either verbal or implicit. How they might proceed from here is yet to be determined. Given Ann's concerns, it is very important that she and Doe communicate as openly as possible about what Ann's role might be. In the end, Ann might decide that she cannot, in good conscience, join Doe in this project. However, if she does agree to join him, this agreement should be based on a clear, mutual understanding of what can be expected from each other. In his desire to have Ann join him, Doe should not deliberately hold back information that might give her reason to turn down the opportunity. Ann, in turn, should not conceal from Doe convictions she has that might dampen his enthusiasm for joining him.
Should Ann and Doe agree that she will work with him on the project, their moral expectations from one another change in fundamental ways. Obligations will have been taken on. There will be a commitment of time, energy, and money. Thus, it is very important that their mutual understanding be as clear as possible before crossing this line.
None of this discussion goes directly to the question of what decision Ann should make about whether to work on this grant. It addresses only the question of what should precede that decision. A reflective student will take on the responsibility of trying to resolve tensions between personal convictions and professional commitments. That is what Ann is doing as she goes home. She may benefit from talking further with others - others who share her moral and religious convictions, as well as Doe or other engineering faculty and students. Ultimately, she must decide what she is or is not willing to do. Doe should be willing to offer further help, should Ann seek it. He can also attempt to influence her decision making by overtly or subtly threatening to make life difficult for her as a student at Engineering University should she decline his offer. He should not do that.
This case illustrates the importance of encouraging engineering students to try to think though larger questions about the social responsibilities they will have as engineers. This, I believe, is a vital part of meeting the ABET requirement that engineering programs should familiarize students with the ethical dimensions of the profession they are about to enter.1 This effort requires more than acquainting them with engineering codes of ethics. It also requires encouraging students to think carefully about how good a fit there is between what matters to them as moral agents and what an engineering career might entail.
From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 4, 2000 edited by Brian Schrag
"A Young Woman's Struggle for Peace" may be read on two levels. First, it is a case of an individual's personal moral dilemma. Ann must weigh her duties as a student and her desire to become a researcher in light of the wisdom of her developing conscience. Regardless of the basis of her dilemma, the realm of professional ethics includes resolution of conflicts that may arise between personal convictions and professional activities. Questions 1-7 are roughly contained within this framework. I have outlined approaches to these questions in some detail.
Ann's dilemma does not exist in a vacuum, but necessarily rests upon more fundamental issues. The second reading of this case, therefore, addresses the basis of Ann's dilemma, primarily by questioning the ethics of developing military technology and the related notion of the just war. These underlying matters lie beyond the immediate scope of professional ethics, for they appeal to more basic philosophies. Dismissal of such questions, however, silences discussion of the very issues that give rise to practical problems and consequently squanders the wisdom that can be gleaned from earnest deliberation. Progress in professional ethics, therefore, requires consideration of basic questions, even if consensus cannot be reached. In this spirit, Questions 8-13 investigate broad issues that surround Ann's situation. I make no attempt to answer them systematically. I sincerely hope the reader finds these questions engaging, and that they will inspire thought and dialogue that will inform the consciences of engineers and scientists as they choose to participate in various research activities.
In this light, two basic questions emerge concerning Ann's situation:
A reasonable answer to the first question is "yes." Moral agency is not confined to the ethics of conduct within a profession, such as conventions of authorship, confidentiality, data reporting, informed consent, etc. Vigilant moral agents may legitimately question the basic objectives and premises of their professions. Imagine that a new version of the Tuskegee study is devised to study untreated HIV. Perhaps the study is scientifically sound and provides for informed consent of the participants. Surely a clinician would be justified in questioning the premise of the study if he or she felt that it targets poor people who cannot afford treatment.
However, not all ethical problems are necessarily problems in the professional sense. In Ann's case, one basis of analysis rests on understanding the ambient system of law. One may presume that Ann is working in a nation whose constitution authorizes the power to declare war, and in which subsequent laws have provided for the systemic development of military technology. Therefore, Ann's potential objection to military research per se is not an issue of professional ethics, but is rather a personal moral dilemma. (Of course, this case could be modified to examine the specific nature of the research and analyzed with reference to additional criteria, such as international law and conventions of warfare. In some instances, Ann could object to certain types of military research on professional grounds.)
Regarding the second question, Ann is a junior student and is clearly not a professional. She is not expected to master any of the dimensions of her work, whether they are research techniques, mathematical skills, or ethical reasoning. Furthermore, just as beginning students enter with varied technical skills, they enter with different backgrounds in ethics. While loose ethical standards can be expected of all students (in the general area of academic integrity), it is my own experience that beginning and even advanced students lack a full conception of moral agency. Given this climate, I contend that Ann is not responsible for understanding or affirming the wider applications of her thesis work at its outset.3 However, as she progresses in her studies, her professional responsibilities increase. I suggest that a reasonable benchmark is to expect that at the time of her thesis defense, she does understand the applications of her work to the point that she could reassess her initial decision to pursue the work in the first place. To her credit, she is thinking along these lines at a much earlier stage.
The assertion that a graduate student is free from the full obligation of moral agency is perhaps less than satisfactory. The argument that relieved Ann from considering the applications of her thesis work rested not on philosophy, but rather on an estimation of the current norms among graduate students. As ethics education is implemented at the undergraduate level, these norms will change. Students will become more responsible for acting as moral agents before they become full professionals.
Special Note. I contend that researchers in engineering and science have a special obligation to consider the motivations and applications of their work. In his essay Target Equals City, Thomas Merton argues that during warfare in which new technologies are applied, ethical principles shift very quickly, and yield to "practical dictates."4 Should our system of ethics (including ethics of warfare) be based primarily upon what is physically possible and "effective?" Does a system invested in the presumed need to develop military technology rely on sound ethics to discern what is "effective" in the first place? The nature of scientific and engineering research is to expand the envelope of control over matter and energy. Within this envelope, questions of how to control matter and energy are clearly ethical. Researchers who choose military endeavors must draw upon theories of warfare and principles of nonviolence in order to evaluate and justify the objectives of their research. They must be aware that their research may play a role in changing the very system of ethics that is presumed to inform their work a priori.
This is a line-drawing problem.5 None of the alternatives appear to be purely satisfactory or purely unsatisfactory. A practical distinction that Ann might make is whether her research directly contributes to the development of a new weapon system.
This situation may vary according to institution and individual faculty-student relationships.
While Doe may have to reveal information about Ann's convictions as he helps her find a satisfactory position, it is ultimately Ann's responsibility to report her convictions to her associates as they are relevant. It would be unethical for Doe to discuss Ann's moral convictions with colleagues indiscriminately. His faithfulness to this duty will help to prevent some of Ann's fears from being realized.
The following questions are very broad and may serve as the basis of discussion in a range of settings, including academic, professional, and religious. I have only a couple of comments here
I believe that these questions are centrally important in modern education and apply to issues beyond military technology. Another example to consider is the relationship between genetic engineering and large agricultural corporations that produce food.