GeoEthics > GeoEthics and Profession

GeoEthics, Geoscience, Geoscientists, and the Geoscience Professions

David Mogk, Montana State University

As students prepare to enter the geoscience community of practice, part of their pre-professional training must be targeted to engage the accepted practices and values of the discipline. Personal values and behaviors must be aligned with the expectations of the profession. The actions of individuals reflect on the integrity of the discipline, the advancement of Science requires trust that individual scientists act responsibly, and Society must have confidence in the work of individual geoscientists and the geosciences as a profession.

The National Science Foundation requires training programs for undergraduate, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR).

Statutory Requirement "The Director shall require that each institution that applies for financial assistance from the Foundation for science and engineering research or education describe in its grant proposal a plan to provide appropriate training and oversight in the responsible and ethical conduct of research to undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers participating in the proposed research project."

The Nature of the Geosciences

The geosciences encompass the study of the history, materials, and processes of the complex Earth system, and play a central role in contributing to the safety, health, and welfare of humanity. The Earth system is open, heterogeneous, dynamic and complex. Geoscientists must be equipped to address the concepts of "deep time", work on spatial scales from atomic to planetary, make inferences from an incomplete geologic record, and deal with ambiguity and uncertainty in their professional work. The realities of work in the geosciences presents many challenges that confront issues of GeoEthics: how we do our Science, how we interact with other scientists, how we communicate our results to the public. A more comprehensive presentation of the nature of the geosciences can be found in the InTeGrate module on Teaching the Methods of Geoscience.

GeoEthics and the Geoscience Professions

Geoscientists have responsibilities as Scientists and to the progress of science. These are codified in the codes of ethics of professional societies, and also in statutory regulations regarding the responsible conduct of research.

Codes of Ethics of Professional Societies

Codes of Ethics of Professional Societies–a compilation from many professional societies that serve the geosciences.

The American Geosciences Institute has recently developed a Guidelines for Ethical Professional Conduct (Acrobat (PDF) 105kB Nov4 14)–this is a draft report that has been submitted to the AGI member societies for their endorsement in May 2015. A companion document provides information on Development of the American Geosciences Institute Guidelines for Ethical Professional Conduct: History, Context, and Intended Use (Acrobat (PDF) 85kB Nov4 14)

Responsible Conduct of Research

Compilation of Resources on the Responsible Conduct of Research–authorship, plagiarism, conflicts of interest, laboratory safety and much more....

Responsible Conduct of Teaching

"Do no harm" (and optimize benefits). The geoscience professions do not tolerate use of inappropriate methods or tools in our technical work, why would we accept use of outdated and discredited instructional practices in our educational mission? The evidence is clear, based on Discipline-Based Education Research (NRC, 2012), that students learn best through active-learning methods. In an article published in PNAS (2014), Freeman et al. clearly demonstrate that Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering and Mathematics (Acrobat (PDF) 769kB Oct10 14).

To not use the best, demonstrably effective, instructional practices has been equated with medical malpractice (comparing this evidence to the 1964 Surgeon General's report on the health effects of smoking, as reported in Inside Higher Education. "If doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers and other professionals are charged with a duty owing to the public whom they serve, it could not be said that nothing in the law precludes similar treatment of professional educators" (Donohue v. Copiague Union Free School District, as cited in TA DeMitchell, 2003, Statutes and Standards: Has the Door to Education Malpractice Been Opened? BYU Educ. & LJ). The Educational Malpractice Doctrine identifies ".... three general categories: (1) a student or a claimant injured by the student alleges that the school negligently failed to provide the student with adequate skills; (2) the student or the claimant alleges that the school negligently diagnosed or failed to diagnose the student's learning or mental disabilities; or (3) the student or claimant alleges that the school negligently supervised the student's training".

In an interview in Wired, Freeman relates another important dimension of the results of his study: "...there is a strong ethical component. There is a growing body of evidence (Haak et al.Science 3 June 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6034 pp. 1213-1216) showing that active learning differentially benefits students of color and/or students from disadvantaged backgrounds and/or women in male-dominated fields. It's not a stretch to claim that lecturing actively discriminates against underrepresented students." Recruitment and retention has been a long standing issue in the STEM disciplines, and another key factor is making classes student-centered (see, for example, Sheila Tobias' classic They're Not Dumb, They're Different: Stalking the Second Tier (2006) from the Online Ethics Center for Engineering; National Academy of Engineering). Tobias recommends:

  • "A less intense pace for classes.
  • A reduction in the competitive pressure caused by curve grading.
  • A student's motivation and interest should affect performance, not the opposite discouraging effect curve grading tends to inspire.
  • Teachers such as Harvard's Dudley Herschbach are trying methods such as "resurrection points" instead of curve grading and emphasizing to students that it is more important to be "ardent" and "persistent" than "brilliant." His efforts have yielded record success in terms of students, enrolling, and completing the class and outperforming previous years' classes.
  • The use of exit interviews when students do decide to leave a math/science class or major.
  • This provides feedback to the department about potential problem areas.
  • It gives the department a chance to redirect the student's science interest instead of letting the student give up science entirely.
  • It gives the student a sense that his/her departure was not desired or unnoticed."

What can be done to ensure ethical practices in our educational mission?

  • Faculty have a responsibility to keep up to date with the most effective methods of instruction and assessment, and to create a positive learning environment where all students can succeed;
  • Students have an expectation that they will be treated with respect, that assessments are fair and provide feedback to improve their learning, and that instruction will lead to personal development as preparation for continued study or to enter the workforce.

Think about it.

American Institute of Professional Geologists (AIPG)

AIPG publishes The Professional Geologist, which has a monthly column on Professional Ethics and Practices written by David Abbott (149 columns as of January 2014). These essays provide good insights into many aspects of GeoEthics, and could serve as reading assignments to initiate discussions of GeoEthics in geoscience coursework.

Expectations for Ethical Behavior in the Workforce

Perspectives from an employer of geoscientists: presentation at the 2014 Teaching GeoEthics Workshop by John F. Childs, Childs Geoscience, Inc.: Our Sense of the Ethical Environment (Acrobat (PDF) 2.4MB Jun17 14)

A comparison of the geoscientific, nontechnical and soft skills needed by service-industry geoscientists with those required by oil-company geoscientists, C.P.M. Heatah, AAPG Bulletin, v. 89 #10, p. 1275-1292. "The key nontechnical and soft skills are critical thinking, ethics, and commitment."

Are There Limits to Geoscience Research?

The medical professions decided long ago that there must be limits to medical research on human subjects, and researchers must adhere to strict guidelines (see the Belmont Forum Report; the topic of bio- and medical ethics is beyond the scope of this project, but there are important lessons learned from related disciplines). Given that Earth exhibits complex system behavior, do geoscientists have permissions (explicit or tacit), authority, or consent to do unbridled research, particularly in areas that may produce unforeseen consequences (e.g. geoengineering to mitigate climate change; attempts to control earthquakes)? On a local scale, is it appropriate and permissable for geoscientists to sample and analyze for environmental hazards in communities? What are the consequences to the people living in the potentially impacted areas?

What you don't know may indeed hurt you, but in some cases the remedy may be more harmful than the original situation. There are no clear answers here, but this is something to think about. As Hamm says to Clov in Samuel Beckett's End Game: "I love the old questions. (with fervor) Ah the old questions, the old answers, there's nothing like them." Or from Adlai Stevenson: "Nature is neutral. Man has wrested from nature the power to make the world a desert or make the deserts bloom. There is no evil in the atom; only in men's souls." Who decides when or if geoscience research goes "out of bounds"? Do we need an equivalent IRB for the geosciences equivalent to that required of human or animal subjects? Are there instances where knowing the results of research could actually cause harm?

GeoHeritage Sites and the Ethics of Collecting

Field instruction is increasingly challenged in the United States as access to field sites is being restricted by private land owners and even federal agencies. Iconic field sites are also threatened as one of a kind outcrops that represent "type sections" of geologic formations, examples of geologic processes, collecting sites for rare minerals, rocks, or fossils, areas that reveal the history of geologic thought are being degraded from sampling by many generations of geologists.

Whether under the banner of GeoHeritage, GeoDiversity, GeoTourism, there is a growing awareness among geologists that preservation of these special places is a high priority for the enjoyment and education of future generations of geoscientists. The National Academy Press has published a report on America's Geologic Heritage–Invitational Workshop sponsored by the American Geosciences Institute (AGI), the Geological Society of America (GSA), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Park Service (NPS), and the Colorado Geological Survey (CGS).

Paleontologists have confronted the ethics of collecting vertebrate fossils. This topic is addressed in the Integrating Research and Education module on Paleontology Ethics, and by Jim Schmitt at the 2014 Teaching GeoEthics workshop: Jim Schmitt, Montana State University-Bozeman: Ethics and Paleontology: Dinosaur Wars (PowerPoint 6.3MB Jun11 14); Activity: Ethics and Paleontology: Dinosaur Wars