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Presenting science to the public: The ethics of outreach

Joy Branlund, Southwestern Illinois College


This case study involves class discussion about (a) the environmental concerns of developing a new industrial project (in this case, a new mine in Minnesota), and (b) the ethics of communicating those impacts, both between industry and the public, and a scientist and the public. The first part of the discussion ties into previous class instruction on sulfide mining and impacts.


This activity was designed for use in an undergraduate introductory geoscience or environmental science class. The activity took place in a relatively small class (24 students), but could be scaled up or down.

Class size: 15 to 30 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
The activity as presented requires basic knowledge of metal mining/processing techniques and related environmental concerns (the environmental impacts of surface mining, floatation and leaching, in order to extract sulfide minerals). However, the case can be modified to stress only ethical communication (and not mining knowledge).

How the activity is situated in the course
The activity was part of a mineral resource unit, specifically used to apply knowledge of mining (extraction and processing).


Content/concepts goals for this activity
By completing the activity, students should be able to:

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
By completing the activity, students will:

Other skills goals for this activity
Students will work in groups, and present their group answers to the class.

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

The activity addresses both:

Description and Teaching Materials

Several projects (new mines, new power plants, new levee construction, etc.) cannot open until they receive a permit from the state. To receive the permit, the company completes an environmental impact statement. During a public comment period, the public can read the environmental impact statement, and then direct their opinions to their lawmakers. This activity addresses two components of the process. First, the public's role, and second, a geoscientist's role as educator of the public. The activity presented here specifically addresses a proposed sulfide mine in northern Minnesota (which was still in the public comment phase in spring 2013, when the case was taught).

The activity was designed to incorporate small group discussion, with groups reporting results to the entire class. The second portion of the activity would work well as a gallery walk.

Case Study Scenario

This information is what would be given to students:

PolyMet proposes to open a mine and processing plant in northern Minnesota (the location of which is labeled on the U. S. map). The company is planning to recover sulfide minerals (mostly copper) using surface-mining techniques. They have completed their environmental impact statement, and the public comment period has started. Imagine that you are a resident of Minnesota.

Part 1. In a group, brainstorm answers to this question: What questions do you want answered before you decide to tell your lawmaker that you approve (or reject) PolyMet's plan?

Part 2. A geologist visits her local library to give a talk to Minnesotans who are concerned about mining in the north. In response to the question: "I'm very worried that the streams up there, and even Lake Superior, might become polluted. Will that happen?", the geologist says:

That's a good question. The Partridge and Embarrass rivers flow through the mine and processing sites, and these streams flow into the St. Louis River which flows into Lake Superior. Good news: the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness will not be impacted. The mine will operate a wastewater treatment plant, and this will reduce sulfate levels in the water. (This is also good news, because the sulfate would hurt the wild rice harvests.) Liners and will capture water seeping through waste rock piles, and the captured water will be treated. The company will also monitor water quality at places near the mine and downstream.
Much of the mine and processing site was previously mined, and so this new wastewater treatment plant will actually make the water cleaner. However, modeling shows that there may be elevated levels of aluminum and lead downstream as a side effect of the project (not because of direct discharges from the mine site).

Answer the following questions about the geologists presentation:
  1. The ethical requirement of the geologist is that she clearly present the scientific evidence people need to make a decision. Critique the geologist's answer. Did the geologist act ethically? How could her answer have been better?
  2. In her presentation, the geologist didn't state what she thinks ought to be done (whether she thinks the project should be approved or rejected). Again, considering ethical behavior, do you think she should have? Why or why not?
  3. What is the public's responsibility in this permitting process? If you knew someone who lives in Minnesota, then what reasons would you give in order to encourage their involvement?
  4. The mining company might find that disclosing all relevant information could prevent them from reaching their goals, whether those be acquiring a permit, recruiting investors, attaining needed land, etc. Is it ethical to withhold information? Explain your answer.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Part 1
Developing questions requires students to apply knowledge of mining processes (specifically the challenges of sulfide mining) to this different example. The amount of information given ahead of time was limited purposefully, in order to expand the range of questions. Student questions will include those with a social and economic bent, but also should include mining-specific questions, such as, "How much waste rock will be created?" "How will waste rock and tailings be stored and disposed of?" "What will the company do to limit effects of acid mine drainage?"

I had students brainstorm in small groups, until they all had a long list of questions (and conversation died down). The small group work can be shortened depending on time constraints.

Then, I went around the room and had representatives from each group share one question, which I listed in PowerPoint. We went around the room until all questions were listed. The length of this question list should give students a good idea of the breadth of information that should be given by the company to the public. In fact, this environmental impact statement is 2,169 pages long!

The instructor can choose to answer some of these questions (if he/she wishes to skim through the environmental impact statement, or the fact sheets), and/or to clarify why the question is worth asking.

This list resulted from the discussion in one of my classes:

How much area will be disturbed by mining?

Who will inspect the mine operations, and how often?

How will the company ensure employee safety?

How many jobs will this bring to this community?

What will these jobs pay? And will there be advancement opportunities?

Will local people be employed?

Will local people be trained to work at the mine? Or will there be a huge influx of strangers?

Will these be full-time and permanent? Or temporary?

If temporary, then will the company help find more jobs for their employees?

For how many years will the mine be open?

Who owns the land?

Does the company own the land on which they'll mine?

How much profit will the mine make?

Would it be more profitable to open a mine elsewhere?

How close is the nearest community?

Will the mine bring tax revenue to the region, or will the company receive tax breaks/ incentives to be there?

How will waste rock be managed?

What is the reclamation plan?

How will plants and animals be affected?

What sorts of air pollution will be created by mining equipment?

And on-site power plant?

How will they manage water flowing on/though site?

Will there be a water treatment plant on site?

What kind of on-site monitoring will take place to check water and air quality?

What plans are in place to deal with emergencies (chemical spills, worker safety issues, etc.)?

How close is the mine site to streams and lakes? To where do nearby streams flow? Do people use this water?

What are the start-up costs, and do we care?

Is concentration [of the resource] going to happen on-site? How will stuff be transported from mine to concentration site to the market?

Part 2

Part 2 stresses ethical considerations. Again, students can answer the posed questions in smaller groups, and then report out to the larger class the suggestions they have. Alternatively, part 2 can be done as a gallery walk (with each of the four questions written on a flipchart paper, and groups rounding to each question where they add to the answers).

The case covers ethical questions in three areas: science communication, the role of a scientist in society at large, and the role of nonscientists when dealing with science topics (and science ethics).

Science communication

Communications with the public are only successful if the public trusts the scientist. Therefore, the scientists must:

  • Tell the truth without omission. Provide clear, truthful description of (ideally) peer-reviewed* results including: methods, uncertainty, participating scientists, whether results differ from other studies, if other scientists disagree and why, possible negative implications/ consequences of the results, other possible explanations for the results, possible conflicts of interest. The results (or importance of results, or uncertainties in results) should not be over- or under-emphasized.
  • Respect the audience. Never try to manipulate or use the public (even for a good cause). Listen to (and value) non-scientific arguments and points of view. Communication should not happen for personal or institutional benefit. Think well of the audience; the public is capable of judging scientific evidence and making sound decisions, as long as the communicated science is clear, jargon free, and thorough.
  • Explain how science works. People (especially non-scientists) need to be reminded (a) that uncertainty in science doesn't mean disagreement, (b) theories are simplified explanations of nature, not truth (but also not guesses), (c) that science is based on observation, and our scientific explanations might change when new observations are made, and (d) predications carry with them some (or a lot of) uncertainty.

*Science ethics dictates that a scientist should not discuss research until the results have been peer-reviewed. However, in the case presented here, company results do no go through the peer-review process. However, the guest scientist should mention any peer-reviewed data that agree or disagree with the company's findings.

The role of the scientist in society at large

There have been debates about how science fits into society, ranging from complete independence (science is separate from, and special in relation to) society, to integration (science should be completely integrated with society) (Briggle and Mitcham, 2012). Believers who favor independence would argue that values must be kept separate from facts, and thus scientists should present the facts and let other members of society determine the values. However, those that favor more integration acknowledge that scientists are humans, and thus have values and societal responsibilities. Carrada (2006) states, "Scientists should declare the values at the root of their work, but also be ready to divulge the social implications of their work as well as the work of others, and their own opinion, positive or negative." The fact that the NSF requires a Broader Impact Statement suggests that the science franchise expects scientists to be citizens and positively impact their societal realm.

Nonscientists making science-related decisions

Nonscientists are constantly faced with using science, and making science-related decisions. They will use (and dispose of) technology developed using science, they will rely on (and have their behaviors and beliefs changed by) the scientific body of knowledge, and they will participate in larger public policy debates because of how science affects them. Educators must empower students to make these judgments, scientists must ethically provide the scientific information that the public needs, trust nonscientists to make science-related decisions, and respect the non-science-related concerns that arise in the debate. Everyone must learn to be involved in the decision-making process, as decisions made only by scientists, politicians and/or industry will not involve all of society's concerns.

Adapting for use with a different example
The case can easily be modified to incorporate a local industrial project, or a more timely example (information in part 1, and the geologists' speech would change in part 2, but otherwise the questions could remain the same).


Assessment is embedded in the activity, by paying attention and adding to discussion points.

References and Resources

NorthMet Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement

SERC's description of gallery walks

Briggle, Adam and Mitcham, Carl (2012) Ethics and Science - An Introduction. Cambridge Applied Ethics Series. Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 978-0-521-87841-8

Carrada, Giovanni (2006) Communicating Science. European Commission, Brussels. 76 pgs. Available online at:

Johnson, Branden B. (1999) Ethical Issues in Risk Communication: Continuing the Discussion. Risk Analysis 19(3): 335-348.

Meyer, Gritte and Sand√łe, Peter (2012) Going Public: Good Scientific Conduct. Science and Engineering Ethics 18: 173-197.

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