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Students consider "right vs. wrong" in ecological research

Friday, June 25, 2010, by Aleta Wiley
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Last Tuesday, all of the summer REU students participated in Ethics Day, an annual event held at Harvard Forest to help the students consider some of the ethical dilemmas they may face while conducting ecological research. The program started with a presentation by Ben Minteer, a professor of environmental ethics at Arizona State University. He began by posing a "thought experiment" to the group: If only one human being remained on the Earth, and humans would be extinct after his/her death, and for whatever reason, it would make this person really happy to wipe out other species to extinction, would s/he be acting unethically in doing so? As the students raised points regarding empathy, motivation, and consequences, they came to the realization that these types of decisions are very difficult to make.

To help focus the students' thinking about environmental ethics, the program divided into four breakout groups, each focused on a different set of ethical questions. In these smaller groups, students considered issues such as:

  • When is it justified for scientists to harm individual organisms in order to gain knowledge that could help or save the whole species, and how can scientists work with other stakeholders, such as animal welfare groups, to avoid costly legal battles?
  • What criteria should be used to determine which animal subjects need to be approved by a research board (currently, only projects that harm animals "with a backbone" are required), but what about cephalopods, like octopi, or spiders, butterflies, or ants? Why don't experiments that harm plants require approval?
  • At what point should ecological research, particularly research about climate change, be required to document or restrict its own carbon footprint?
  • What are the ethical considerations for experiments on invasive species? What might justify an experimental introduction of a non-native species?

After lunch, each breakout group presented its questions and a summary of their discussion. Many issues were discussed across groups, such as the criteria for determining "best practices" in research and how to avoid standstills in important research while battling through ethical conflicts.

After the program, many students felt like the discussions had helped them be more aware of their own impacts on the environment while doing their research projects at the Forest. Even students who are doing mostly computer-based projects (using GIS, making models, distributing surveys, etc.) recognized that their projects are using energy and increasing their personal carbon footprints. Students realized that, even though some projects have greater ethical considerations than others, it is important for everyone to be involved in these discussions and decisions since they can affect the whole field of ecology and the scientific community.

"What was most interesting [about Ethics Day] was that even people who care about the environment care about completely different aspects of the environment, and often from completely different perspectives. Someone with a biocentric view may be in conflict with someone with an ecocentric view. It was interesting to see how difficult it is to figure out rules for minimizing pain to animals, and the reasons for including cephalopods (octopuses and squid) in this category [of animals for which permission must be obtained before conducting research] that formerly only had vertebrates." - Sarah Fouzia Choudhury