Initial Publication Date: November 3, 2014

Why Teach GeoEthics?

David Mogk, Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University and Monica Bruckner, SERC, Carleton College, based in part on material developed by participants at the 2014 Teaching GeoEthics Across the Curriculum workshop.

There are ethical underpinnings related to the personal and professional conduct of Scientists, and how the work of scientists impacts society and Earth. 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 (e.g. the Center for Energy Workforce Development has developed a Competency Model that emphasizes training in ethics). Professional societies, governmental agencies, and employers of the geoscience workforce increasingly expect that students have had some training in ethics to guide their professional lives.

Beyond professional expectations, inclusion of GeoEthics in courses and curricula is pedagogically sound. instruction contributes to the cognitive development of students, and provides opportunities to employ pedagogic practices that enhace student learning. Formal instruction in GeoEthics help students develop awareness of the connections between Science, societal issues and planetary stewardship; reflect on personal and societal values and responsibilities; and provide contexts for future actions. Incorporating geoethics benefits students because it:

  • Promotes critical thinking and review: GeoEthics adopts principles of sound science and employs ethics of scientific research (telling the truth, understanding scientific uncertainty, etc.).
  • Guides the formation of responsible solutions to socio-economic problems: GeoEthics provides a reference and guidelines for behavior in addressing concrete problems of human life by trying to find socio-economic solutions that are compatible with a respect for the environment and the protection of nature and land.
  • Highlights environmental, social, and economic stewardship: GeoEthics reflects the social role played by geoscientists and their responsibilities, highlighting the ethical, cultural and economic repercussions that their behavioral choices may have on society.
  • Fosters critical thinking and thoughtful resource management: GeoEthics encourages a critical analysis of the use and management of geo-resources. (See related resources from The Foundation for Critical Thinking
  • Provides a systems-thinking context for dealing with risks: GeoEthics deals with problems related to the risk management and the mitigation of geohazards.
  • Encourages thoughtful communication of scientific findings to different audiences: GeoEthics fosters the proper and correct dissemination of the results of scientific studies and other information on risks and aims to improve the relationships between the scientific community, the mass media, and the public.
  • Establishes relevance for geological content knowledge outside of the classroom: GeoEthics highlights the value and usefulness of the geological and geophysical knowledge in daily life by promoting disciplines like geo-medicine and forensic geosciences.
  • Stimulates social awareness of nature and history: GeoEthics encourages the development of geoparks and geo-tourism in order to create social awareness about the value of geological heritage and geodiversity.

As a discipline, the nature of geoscience 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 underlying 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: in how we responsibly conduct our research 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.

The Heads/Chairs on the Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education Workshop has clearly identified training in geoethics as a high priority, and this was reinforced by theOverview of Geoscience Employers Workshop.

An important new contribution, The Need for Geoethics Awareness from a Canadian Perspective, Anne Marie Ryan and Cari-Georg Bank, 2017, Geosciences, 7(4), doi: 10.3390/geosciences7040120, surveyed Canadian Earth scientists " (1) rate the importance of issues around scientific integrity, social responsibility, aboriginal concerns, corporate ethics, and fieldwork; (2) identify ethical considerations they had observed; and (3) tell us how they were introduced to ethical viewpoints and whether their undergraduate programs had prepared them for ethical decision-making."

For more insights into the nature of geoscience, see the InTeGrate Module on Incorporating Expert Ways of Thinking about Earth and the essay Geoscience and geoscientists: Uniquely equipped to study Earth by Manduca, C. A., and Kastens, K. A., in Special Paper 486, Geological Society of America, p. 1-12, 2012 and references therein.

Teaching Ethics: A Key Role for Educators--from Inside Higher Education. A compilation of articles on Teaching Ethics. A free download copy can be obtained at this website.

Teaching Geoethics in Historical, Social and Economic Contexts

Geoscience is not done in a societal vacuum. The relationship of advances in geoscience, and how this was built on or impacted people of the world can be explored in the context of many geoscience courses.

  • The GeoConext project provides a "social and political context for geoscience education."  From their website:  "the development of geology as a discipline is intertwined with the history of imperialism, colonialism, and Westward Expansion in the United States. Such topics are rarely discussed in current geoscience courses, and continuing to train the next generation of geoscientists without regard to this history perpetuates the same practices of exclusion...we present a resource to assist educators in integrating topics on racism, colonialism, imperialism, environmental damage, and exploitation of natural resources into subjects commonly taught within geoscience departments."
  • See Teaching Geosience History in Context:  Cartier, K. M. S. (2021), Teaching geoscience history in context, Eos, 102, Published on 09 March 2021.