Monday, November 7, 2016

Ethical questions in chemistry?

Also in this week's C&EN, an invitation from Keith Vitense, ACS Committee on Ethics to participate in the conversation about how best to promote ethics in chemistry: 
...And if that is truly the case, what role can the ACS Committee on Ethics play as we go forward? 
The first and most obvious role is in providing more opportunities for education on ethics. The ethics committee was formed in 2006. That year, it held its first symposium on ethics at the Southeastern Regional Meeting of ACS (SERMACS) in Augusta, Ga. That ethics symposium has evolved into half-day ethics workshops that are now held at both national and regional meetings. 
The committee continues to survey the landscape to cosponsor and/or develop symposia that reflect current “hot topics” in ethics. Symposia topics in the pipeline include publishing and authorship, patents and discovery, and nanotechnology. We welcome your input to help identify topics. We are also able to provide help in the form of subject matter experts where appropriate. 
The committee is working on a publication on ethics for undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The goal of the publication is to increase the awareness of the importance of ethics as part of the practice of chemistry. The publication, which we hope to make available in both print and online, will be modeled after the Guidelines for Chemical Laboratory Safety in Academic Institutions that was developed by the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety Task Force for Safety Education Guidelines but will have a focus on ethics rather than on safety.... 
...The very nature of ethics is personal. Ultimately, we can only control our own actions. The Committee on Ethics does not adjudicate; we facilitate. We don’t judge; we educate. Our goal is to provide you with the information needed to help you make the ethical choice. 
You can contact me (keithv@cameron.edu) or Eric Slater, our staff liaison (e_slater@acs.org) with information pertaining to anything that you believe the committee should actively promote.
I'm not much of a philosopher, but it seems to me that chemists at all levels are challenged with various ethical questions. A few that I can think of:
  • What are the most ethical approaches to dealing with letters of recommendation? How much promoting should one do for the people that you're writing letters for? 
  • What are the ethical obligations to one's customers? If you had to rework their material to get it in-specification, are you obligated to tell your customer? 
  • What are ethical obligations to one's employers? If you're thinking about leaving for another employer, how much warning should you give them? Do those extend to the organization, or just your supervisor? 
Huh, this is fun. Readers, I'll bet you can come up with a few of your own. 

19 comments:

  1. Closely related to your third bullet point ... "what are ethical obligations to one's employees? If you're thinking about closing down a lab or a plant and moving it to Cambodia so you can squeeze out 3% additional profit, should you given them any warning, or just close it at midnight one night and let them find out when they get to work? Does this extend to the rank-and-file, or just the C-level executives?"

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  2. Speaking to the second bullet, I think the definition of specification implies that the product is "prime" as long as it meets specs. The exception would be if a customer specifically requested "first-pass prime" material, at which point selling a re-worked product would be unethical and potentially illegal.

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    1. I feel you should be transparent 100% of the time. If it needs reworked, no big deal unless this is for the european drug market...

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  3. #1, only obligation is to provide an honest assessment in a timely manner if agreed to. I don't think writers are under any obligation to be promotional.

    #2, Only obligation to provide honest batch records, nothing more nothing less.

    #3, for 'at will' employees no ethical obligation to give any notice (just as the employer has no obligation to give employee any).

    Interesting point, overall, on ethics in publication of accurate yields (cf. Hudlicky stuff, http://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2010/11/12/99_yield_that_friends_is_deception). Assuming a large % of reported yields in the chemical literature is deceptive, then following after Luke 16:10 we really oughtn't trust chemists that much.

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    1. BTT, I think you've started in the direction I was going to go:

      What are the ethical obligations of publishing? What obligation do you have to ensure that what goes in the manuscript is reproducible, understanding that better guarantees here will generally slow down the lab and consume resources?

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    2. The authors (note, ALL the authors) have an obligation to ensure the data reported are accurate and truthful. By definition this will be reproducible. Nothing more, nothing less.

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  4. Good points. What about the ethics of attracting either undergrads or grad students to undertake chemistry degrees when the job market is so poor?

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    1. Nothing unethical here, so long as the universities aren't making false claims about future employment.

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  5. how about ethics of employers that require you to sign 1) employment at will 2) noncompeting agreement and 3) nondisclosure form? The net result of all three is that when you get laid off at moment's notice (and with 2 weeks of severance), you are not supposed to work in the same field for a year or two, and you cannot even present your research experience unless it was published or unless a written authorization is given by your former employers...

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    1. Nothing unethical here unless you're coerced into agreeing to this. And, no, a paucity of jobs in a tight labour market I don't believe constitutes economic coercion.

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    2. Of course it is perfectly sleazy in this combination - because as a job applicant you do not have the same bargaining power as the employer.

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  6. On the academic side, I would have said the big ethical issues are data reproducibility; adequately crediting source of ideas/authorship; knowingly scooping other groups; dealing with harassment/workplace bullying issues.

    Etc.

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  7. For academics: The ethics of hiring the best candidate who applied as opposed to hiring someone weaker so that the already mediocre (at best) faculty are not outshined by the new star.

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    1. This one is tricky. I'm on a search committee right now, and I don't feel the weight of ethics in our decision. The "best" candidate could mean a lot of things. Best teacher? Best researcher? Best grantwriter? Best personality fit? Best fit based on geographic preference? I could make the counterargument that hiring a "new star" who will cause friction and discord to the department would be an ethical misstep.

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  8. Would you refuse to make chemical weapons or riot control agents?

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    1. Interesting....and certainly not theoretical for the chemists who helped isolated Pu for the Manhattan project.

      I have always wondered what product development meetings at arms manufacturers are like.

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    2. I know someone who has refused further potential employment with their employer because of this issue; I respect the sincerity of their viewpoint. I regret to say (?) that I would have no such qualms, i.e. working for US DoD.

      I don't have problems who work in the alcohol industry, but I don't think I could ever work for a major US alcohol company (e.g. Coors, etc.) But that's my weird, biased view of alcohol/alcoholism/social problems in the United States.

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    3. A fair point, and I don't pretend to know what the correct answer is. Myself I'd be ashamed (and would not) to work making cigarettes or pornography despite those both being legal industries. Given the unfortunate state of opioid addition in the US one could equally question working for big pharma: like the atom bombs that ended WW2 and, presumably saved hundreds of thousands of US Soldiers and Marines, the drugs help many many people but also extract awful collateral.

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  9. If you take a job at a defence establishment I think that you know what you're in for ... but if you work for a company that predominantly does agri or pharma work then I think that you should have the right to refuse since you never signed up for that sort of work.

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