Ethical Obligations in Scientific Investigations

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Ethics are an important part of scientific research. This lesson discusses the ethics involved in scientific practice and the wider societal implications of scientific investigations. A brief quiz follows the lesson.

Ethics in Scientific Investigations

When you sat in a Science classroom, the idea of ethics being important in science might have seemed difficult to imagine. After all, where is the ethical dilemma in measuring how fast a ball falls to the ground? But ethics is central to scientific investigations. Ethics are moral principles that govern a person's behavior -- the things that are considered to be right and wrong.

Not all investigations are as simple as exploring the force of gravity. Scientists do human research as well as research involving animals. They also do research that can lead to governments taking action on things like climate change. And scientific research can lead to the creation of terrifying weapons. So, ethics are very important to scientists.

Honesty, Transparency, and Objectivity

One portion of scientific ethics involves the way researchers conduct their studies. Scientists are tasked with uncovering the truth about the world and how it works. People rely on them to do that job and present their findings. Therefore, it's vitally important that scientists do their work conscientiously. Scientists must be honest about the data and their findings. They must also be objective about how they analyze data, even if this requires letting go of theories or ideas that they've been working on (in some cases for decades). That can be difficult, but it is also central to how scientists are trained. The entire goal of science and education is to seek the truth, and most scientists are very serious about that.

Another related aspect of scientific ethics involves transparency. Traditionally, scientists would not automatically share their raw data, and would only do so at the request of other scientists. Generally, scientists would only share their methodology and results. Questioning the integrity of another researcher's data was considered insulting. However, there is now an increasing push for scientists to be more transparent about their work and share raw data with the public in a more convenient way. This is largely due to the supposed controversy surrounding one researcher's climate change research, even though that scientist's work was found to be entirely accurate. Nevertheless, this is still a good ethical practice, as it reduces the chance that data will be falsified.

Safety and Harms

Another aspect of ethics in scientific research involves ensuring that no harm comes to either the researchers or the subjects during a study. This applies to animal research, which is becoming increasingly unpopular due to the harm it causes animals. But it also applies to human research, particularly medical research. For example, it's unlikely that anyone would perform randomized controlled trials regarding treatments for young babies. In order to do such research, some babies would receive the treatment while others would receive a fake treatment. Withholding treatment from a young baby would be considered unethical. This holds true even if the research could lead to saving lives overall. As a result, lesser-quality studies are often done to ensure research is performed ethically.

Scientists must also make sure that everyone involved in an experiment remains safe and unharmed. There are important precautions to follow in any experiment. These include practices like wearing safety equipment (such as lab coats and safety glasses) and issuing safety briefings. Safety depends upon what the particular experiment demands. It is the scientist's responsibility to make sure everyone involved is safe.

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