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Department of Philosophy

Research Communication Ethics Project

The Project

The Research Communication Ethics Project (RCEP) is a combined research/education project that will use survey data about the attitudes of scientists to develop a training curriculum for graduate students across the sciences regarding the ethics of communicating scientific research to the public. It is an interdisciplinary project between members of the Departments of PhilosophyPsychologyPhysicsCommunication Studies, the Division of Biology, and the Center for the Understanding of Origins at Kansas State University, and is supported by NSF EESE Grant #0734922.

Participants

Philosophy: Bruce Glymour (PI)
  Amy Lara
  Scott Tanona
Psychology: Ron Downey
  Michael Smith
Communications: Bill Schenck-Hamlin
Biology: Dave Rintoul
Physics: Larry Weaver

Background

Despite recurrent calls for better communication between science and the general public and a growing recognition that such communication is one of the ethical obligations of scientists, recent pedagogy in science and engineering ethics has neglected obligations concerning effective communication between scientists and their consumers, the lay public. Because professional papers are in general not accessible to the non-scientific public, these obligations require that scientists engage the public via other forums, as for example in articles in the popular press, through interviews with representatives of the media, and in public discussions. Effective and ethically appropriate communication in these contexts, however, confronts a number of ethical problems. Often scientists will have to simplify, but how much simplification is appropriate, and in what contexts? Scientific results are always uncertain, but how should this uncertainty be characterized, and to what extent should public discussion focus on it? Scientists no less than others have political and moral commitments, so how forthcoming ought scientists to be about these commitments? Scientists, no less than others, have views about which public policies we as a society ought to adopt; to what extent may scientists advocate for such policies, and to what extent must they publicly differentiate between their roles as professional scientist and citizen advocate?

These challenges are particularly evident in the many discussions among scientists about appropriate ways to address public controveries, about the scientific consensus on evolution, cosmology, global warming and other topics, and also about the roles scientists and the public should take in assessing the potential benefits and risks of developing scientific research. What issues should scientists be considering as they engage in communication about such topics, and what principles should they rely on in making their decisions about how to communicate?

About current training in communication ethics

Training in the ethics of science communication is not about teaching scientists “the right” views about science communication, but rather about helping them develop the skills which allow them to successfully engage in ethical deliberation about their communication with the public.

Unfortunately, scientists typically receive little or no formal training regarding the different ethical norms requiring and governing communication with the general public, and such instruction as does occur tends to focus exclusively on the interactions between scientists and the professional science media. Philosophical questions about the ethical obligations pertaining to effective and appropriate communication between scientists and the general public have not been addressed in systematic detail in pedagogic discussions, especially insofar as those obligations vary over communicative contexts.

What we need to know to improve research communication ethics training

Before we can develop modules that can be incorporated into research ethics graduate training, we need to know more about scientists’ views about the ethics of scientific communication. Although all communication relies on “framing” to some degree, anecdotal evidence suggests that scientists often resist calls for intentional framing or the use of other effective communication techniques, and that scientists often view communication with the public as merely an effort in information transfer. Are scientists indeed committed to such views? What moral commitments, models of science and its communication, and attitudes about the public's relationship to science are their views based on?

Little is known about how scientists understand these obligations, little is known about the extent to which scientists are aware of the cognitive biases from which audiences are likely to suffer.

Goals of the project

This project will provide exploratory data that aim to extend our knowledge of these topics and thereby allow us to improve our training practices. In particular, we are interested in what factors influence scientists’ views about these matters, so that training in the ethics of scientific communication can take them into consideration. For example, to what degree do particular beliefs about appropriate communication techniques depend on consequentialist ethical thinking as opposed to rule-based deontological ethical thinking?