Science can change the world: the ethics of doing so and our obligation to act with integrity

Alex Fisher, Long Jiang, Vanessa Vargas-Nguyen ·
6 May 2013
Applying Science |     1 comments

In 1610, Galileo Galilei published the Sidereus Nuncius, or the Starry Messenger, a paper which strongly suggested that Nicolaus Copernicus had been correct when he presented an alternative view of our solar system, over half a century earlier, in which the earth orbited around the sun and not vice versa. In doing so, Galileo changed the world by changing the way people saw themselves in it - shifting the scientific paradigm (Kuhn 1962). The integrity of science, and its potential to shape our understanding of our world, mandates that scientists maintain ethical standards by which they acquire and disseminate knowledge.

Science is a human enterprise with differing perspectives shaped by cultural and personal differences, but there are certain universal ideals which maintain the free exchange of information and ideas (Dennison, 2013). David King outlines seven principles of scientific ethics which are described in greater detail in Table 1. In addition to the ethical standards presented by King, there are ethical grey areas that can present problems for environmental scientists. While general consensus is needed before recommending a course of action, an overreliance on consensus can stymie progress (Dennison, 2013). Environmental scientists face the challenges of solution-based research and in some cases the need for protective/restorative action – leadership is needed to ensure that the metaphorical wheel keeps turning.

Table 1: Scientific Ethics Principles

  1. Act with skill and care - Keep skills and knowledge current
  2. Prevent corruption and declare conflicts of interest
  3. Respect and acknowledge the work of other scientists
  4. Ensure research is justified and lawful
  5. Minimize impacts on people, animals and the environment
  6. Discuss issues science raises for society
  7. Present evidence honestly

Commonly, scientists will participate in discussions that include topics in which they are not an expert – especially during environmental crises when immediate action is required. Scientists have an obligation to do their homework on relevant topics which may be outside their comfort zone and maintain an active network of colleagues that can help address multi-faceted questions. Scientists must understand that they hold a moral authority and as such should not offer conclusive statements on topics in which they are not an expert.

Practicing these ethical standards in a consistent manner is the foundation of maintaining integrity as a scientist. Transparency is a key term used in federal scientific integrity policies (EPA 2012, NOAA 2011, Holdren 2011, Dept of the Interior 2011, Boesch, 2013). In a recent controversy regarding dam removal on the Klamath River, the release of a public document which summarized scientific findings used in the decision-making process was criticized for its apparent lack of transparency and potentially biased perspective. While the allegations were determined to be unfounded, the event did raise important questions regarding the interpretations of scientific transparency. Documents released summarizing political decision-making are intended to represent the data leading to the decision. If an informational gap exists between a summary document and the full scientific report being summarized, scientific integrity is maintained if the full report fully discloses all information and uncertainty related to the decision.

Authorship of scientific literature poses its own set of ethical challenges. The standards by which someone earns authorship on a scientific paper vary, but typically they require that the person participates in writing and/or developing analysis for some significant portion of the paper. Conceptualization of the study usually earns a person an authorship credit, but this is not always true if the formulation of the study was not dependent on that person’s conceptual input. Regardless of how a person earns authorship of a specific study, he/she must be able to address detailed questions regarding the published paper. Peer-reviewed publication is central to the scientific effort, but scientists should also make a concerted effort to communicate their findings to a broader audience – take steps to engage those outside of the scientific community.

Ethics context values

As graduate students at the start of our scientific careers, we should consider not only the ethics of being a scientist, but also the application of those ethics to the diverse skillsets required as professionals. An in-depth understanding of our specialty is only one part of being a T-shaped professional, as shown in Figure 1 (McIntosh & Taylor 2013). We must diligently develop knowledge and skills from other disciplines to effectively organize discussions and translate those discussions to productive outcomes through leadership. With debates surrounding formalizing tradition-based scientific practices through federal policies and accelerations in social media, there are many new ethical dilemmas on the horizon. As we continually gain perspective on our role as scientists, we may undoubtedly change the way we view ourselves and the way we view our place in the world.


Boesch D. “Scientific Integrity Principles.” Science for Environmental Management (MEES 698Y) lecture. University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. May 1, 2013.

Dennison W. “Ethical Issues associated with science for environmental management.” Science for Environmental Management (MEES 698Y) lecture. University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. May 1, 2013.

Dept. of the Interior. “Department Manual.” United States of America Department of the Interior (2011). Part 305, Ch 3, pp1-38.

EPA. “Scientific Integrity Policy.” Environmental Protection Agency (2012). Accessed May 1, 2013 from

Holdren, J. “Scientific Integrity.” Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies sent from the desk of John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, on December 17, 2010.

Kuhn, T. ­The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press (1962), Chicago, IL, USA.

McIntosh B., Taylor A. “Developing T-shaped Water Professionals: Building Capacity in Collaboration, Learning, and Leadership to Drive Innovation.” Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education (2013). Issue 150 pp 6-17

NOAA. “Scientific Integrity.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2011). Administrative Order 202-735D.


Alex Fisher, Long Jiang, and Vanessa Vargas

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  • Melissa 10 years ago

    Your blog was really thoughtfully put together. The final paragraph is thought-provoking.

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