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--these recommendations have been endorsed by over 30 AGI member societies. 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 Scientists

Geoethics and Professionalism--principles of professionalism (power, respect, responsibility, justice), unprofessional behaviors (sexual harassment/assault, bullying), factors that determine workplace "climate" (implicit bias, empowering bystanders), diversity, professional relations built on trust (collaborations, client-consultant, editor-author, faculty-student), expert witness), and much more....

Ethics Education for Geospatial Professionals

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".

  • Statement on Professional Ethics--American Association of University Professors "...has recognized that membership in the academic profession carries with it special responsibilities. The Association has consistently affirmed these responsibilities in major policy statements, providing guidance to professors in such matters as their utterances as citizens, the exercise of their responsibilities to students and colleagues, and their conduct when resigning from an institution or when undertaking sponsored research".

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.

AIPG White Paper on Responsible Mining

  • AIPG White Paper on Responsible Mining (Acrobat (PDF) 755kB Mar1 18)--"Responsible mining demonstrably respects and protects the interests of all stakeholders, human health and the environment, and contributes discernibly and fairly to broad economic development of the producing country and to benefit local communities, while embracing best international practices and upholding the rule of law"

Expectations for Ethical Behavior in the Workforce