Ethics: Walking the Talk

Throughout this Winter Quarter, the SSRC is partnering with the Department of Sociology to present a series of workshops and conversations about research ethics. To extend those conversations, we will be posting weekly questions about research ethics here for discussion.

This week, Scientific American posted a short interview with NASA’s chief climate scientist, Jim Hansen, often referred to as “the father of global warming”. The interview centers on Hansen’s activism in favor of policy changes to curb CO2 emissions and fossil fuel dependency to curtail climate change. In recent years, Hansen has intentionally been leaving the lab to attend protests and rallies—even getting arrested multiple times, most recently this summer at the White House protesting an oil pipeline.

woman being arrested
Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested, via the Nationaal Archief, Netherlands

Asked at the top of the interview whether his credibility as a scientist has suffered due to his political activism around his subject of study, Hansen says:

If I was not publishing papers in the peer reviewed literature, then that would be a valid criticism. But I am still publishing. I’m trying to make that science clear to the public. It’s not easy: The scientific evidence has really become very clear, and we’re not doing a very good job of communicating that.

Hansen’s answer gets at the heart of something we talk about all the time at the SSRC: Getting socially-relevant research findings with the potential to impact policy into public discussions.

Scientific inquiry rests on a foundation of objectivity (a concept that could spiral into a post-modernist free-fall if we let it; luckily, we won’t), but most of that objectivity is confined to the lab. In developing our research designs and hypotheses, and analyzing our data, we strive for a bias-free open-mindedness that will allow the findings to surprise or even disappoint us. But how far does the persona of the dispassionate, objective, scientist extend? What happens in the case of findings that are critically important to society and  vital (by which I mean life-or-death) to policy decision-making?

To my knowledge, the ethical statements and policies of research institutions and professional organizations typically don’t address the dissemination of findings to the public in this regard. What if they did? Do researchers have an ethical obligation to make sure that their findings are not only published in the academic literature, but also are understood by the general public—especially in the case of critically important and socially relevant research? Is it the role of the researcher to act merely as an expert giving testimony to policymakers, or are activism and advocacy like Jim Hansen’s necessary?

I don’t think climate change is the only arena in which credibility and objectivity might be called into question when a researcher engages in political activism (though that’s a particularly hot potato these days), but I do think it’s telling that the very first question put to a respected researcher is whether his willingness to fight for his findings damages his credibility. Would you be willing to risk arrest for your research? How far will you go to make sure that the public hears and understands your findings in the context of a political and public debate? Is that even the role of the researcher?

This is a centerpiece of our work at the SSRC; we’re eager to know what you have to say about whether and how research findings can or should be “translated” to the layperson and findings disseminated to the public at large. Any thoughts?


Author: Jessica Speer

As the Research Specialist at SSRC, Jessica edits re/search, consults with faculty, and conducts SSRC research projects. She is interested in questions of information management, preservation, communication, and dissemination.

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