GeoEthics Across the Curriculum

David Mogk, Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University

Ethics Education is an increasingly important component of the pre-professional training of (geo)scientists. Funding agencies (NSF, NIH) require training of graduate students in the responsible conduct of research, employers are increasingly expecting their workers to have basic training in ethics, and the public demands the highest standards of ethical conduct by scientists. Yet, few faculty have the requisite training to effectively teach about ethics in their classes, or even informally in their mentoring of students working in their labs. This module has been developed to meet the need of introducing ethics education into the geoscience curriculum: for faculty, resources, case studies, and teaching activities are provided to facilitate instruction in ethics within established geo "core" courses or in a dedicated course on "GeoEthics"; for students, resources are provided to help expand your own understanding of ethical situations that may arise in your careers, and to give you the tools to appropriately address these issues.

What do we mean by "GeoEthics"?

GeoEthics encompasses the values and professional standards required of geoscientists to responsibly work in the profession and in service to society. The International Association for Promoting Geoethics states in their constitution:

"Geoethics consists of the research and reflection on those values upon which to base appropriate behaviours and practices where human activities intersect the Geosphere. Geoethics deals with the ethical, social and cultural implications of Earth Sciences research and practice, providing a point of intersection for Geosciences, Sociology and Philosophy. Geoethics represents an opportunity for Geoscientists to become more conscious of their social role and responsibilities in conducting their activities. Geoethics is a tool to influence the awareness of society regarding problems related to geo-resources and geo-environment."

GeoEthics is an emerging field of scholarship that encompasses many dimensions of the relationship of geoscientists to society. This module explores four important dimensions of GeoEthics:

  • GeoEthics and self: what are the internal attributes of a geoscientist that establish the ethical values required to successfully prepare for and contribute to a career in the geosciences?
  • GeoEthics and the geoscience profession: what are the ethical standards expected of geoscientists if they are to contribute responsibly to the community of practice expected of the profession?
  • GeoEthics and society: what are the responsibilities of geoscientists to effectively and responsibly communicate the results of geoscience research to inform society about issues ranging from geohazards to natural resource utilization in order to protect the health, safety, and economic security of humanity?
  • GeoEthics and Earth: what are the responsibilities of geoscientists to provide good stewardship of Earth based on their knowledge of Earth's composition, architecture, history, dynamic processes, and complex systems?

Why Teach GeoEthics?

The scientific community, as well as our civic communities, must have trust that the conduct of scientists and their scientific product is above reproach. Charles Darwin famously wrote:

False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often long endure; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, as every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened (Descent of Man, 1871, Volume 2, Chapter XXI, p. 385).

Developing an ethical foundation in the pre-professional training of geoscientists is much like learning to play a musical instrument or training for an athletic event: it must be practiced early and often. Increasingly, faculty are recognizing the importance of addressing professional ethics in their undergraduate and graduate programs (e.g. reports from the Summit on the Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education and future employers have identified ethics as an important workforce competency (Center for Energy Workforce Development, see their Competency Model). As students prepare to enter the community of practice in the geosciences, they should have the opportunity in our classes to recognize ethical dilemmas in the first instance, and to develop the strategies and skills needed to responsibly participate in the profession. Instructors at all levels, should be aware of the need for ethical training in their coursework and mentoring of students, and look for opportunities to introduce those "teachable moments" to explicitly identify and address ethical issues.

The nature of geoscience as a discipline presents many situations that raise ethical considerations: the Earth system is open, heterogenous, dynamic, and complex; the geologic record is incomplete; geoscientists must work with data that are often ambiguous and must clearly identify uncertainty and underlyiing assumptions in their findings; interpretations of Earth often rely on metaphor, analogy, and inference; what "counts" as evidence in the geosciences spans direct observation of Nature, direct and indirect measurements through use of instrumentation; application of first principles of cognate sciences and related theory; modeling (conceptual, physical, computational); and the scope and breadth of geologic investigations span temporal and spatial scales from nano- to giga- that extend far beyond the scale of common human experience. The geosciences also address topics such as geohazards and resource development that have ethical dimensions direct impact on the health, security, public policies, and economic well-being of society. Ethical issues are confronted in all aspects of the geosciences as a profession, and in the ways that the geoscience profession contributes to society at large. Consequently, all geoscience students should have formal training in GeoEthics to prepare them to identify and address the ethical standards that they will have to apply throughout their career. For more insights into the nature of geoscience, see the InTeGrate Module on Teaching the Methods of Geoscience and Geoscience and Geoscientists: Uniquely equipped to study the Earth by Manduca, C. A., and Kastens, K. A., in Special Paper 486, Geological Society of America, p. 1-12, 2012 and references therein.

How to Teach GeoEthics?

"Most graduate students and post-doctoral fellows currently learn research practices primarily through ad hoc, informal exposures in their individual laboratories, rather than through formal training" (NRC, 2009). Training in ethical practices in our science is too important to leave to random experiences that require ethical decision-making, and training in ethics at the graduate or post-graduate level is too late in the pre-professional training of students. We propose that a systematic curriculum that helps students identify and address ethical issues in the geosciences is needed. The tenets of "best practices" in STEM education extend to instruction in GeoEthics, primarily through use of a variety of active learning methods. There is a related need to develop appropriate assessment instruments to determine the mastery of ethical principles and ethical maturity of our students. Learn more about Instruction and Assessment of GeoEthics.

GeoEthics, Geoscientists and the Geoscience Professions

Ethical conduct in the geoscience professions has many dimensions. The National Science Foundation requires training programs for undergraduate, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR).

All geoscience professional societies have developed ethics policies related to their interests in publications and the behavior of their members (see list of Professional Societies and Their Mission Statements and Codes of Ethics. Ethical issues span a breadth of topics ranging from interpersonal relations in the work environment, to the conduct of research and reporting of research results. Learn more about ethical issues that commonly arise that geoscientists must be prepared to address.

GeoEthics and Society

The work of geoscientists commonly have great impact on society, particularly in the areas of geohazards, resource development, and environmental issues (both anthropogenic and natural). What is the responsibility of geoscientists in service to society? How can the product of geoscientists' work be communicated to the public to effect positive actions and policies in light of our knowledge of Earth processes? How can we convey uncertainty to the public and planners (frequency, magnitude, duration, recurrence interval, etc. of natural phenomena; limits to available resources)? Should geoscientists be culpable for costs related to recovery of natural disasters or economic consequences related to studies of resource development? How can we best prepare future geoscientists to responsibly inform the public and work with journalists, civil planners and policy makers? Learn more about GeoEthics and Society.

GeoEthics and the Earth System

Geoscientists are in a unique position to interpret the dynamic, heterogeous and complex Earth System. What is the responsibility of geoscientists to address questions of sustainability? What principles guide choices we make related to environmental ethics? How can we reconcile issues when societal needs/values come in conflict with environmental ethics and values? Learn more about GeoEthics and the Earth System.

Opportunities to Teach GeoEthics in Geoscience Courses for Majors and Non-Majors

This module will be developed by particpants of the 2014 Teaching GeoEthics workshop.

Design of a Course in GeoEthics for Geoscience Majors and Graduate Students

This module will be developed by particpants of the 2014 Teaching GeoEthics workshop.

Resources on Teaching GeoEthics: Getting Started

There are abundant resources available to support instruction in GeoEthics. There is a strong pedagogical foundation for teaching ethics in theory and practice that can be applied to the geosciences. You don't have to start with a clean slate. Take a look at these websites, reports, articles and other resources to get you started. Find resources on Teaching GeoEthics.