Institute celebrates third annual Ethics Day
By Melissa Kerr
NIEHS celebrated the Institute’s third annual Ethics Day May 9 with a program including two talks about ethical considerations at work and at the bench. Participants also enjoyed a break between the talks, with good-natured competition and laughter, during a mock game show titled “Who Wants to Be an Ethics Millionaire” (see text box). Hosted by NIEHS Office of Ethics Director and Deputy Ethics Counselor Bruce Androphy, J.D., the theme of this year's program was “We're Here to Help!”
Co-hosted by NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., the program was filled with games, songs, and presentations. She said the program was designed to promote discussion and to help avoid pitfalls that can lead to ethics violations. She stressed that people should always ask first, and never act on assumptions, if a situation seems in any way questionable. After Androphy introduced the staff of the Office of Ethics, he explained why ethics is important. “Innocent behavior can easily violate regulations and policies,” he said.
Value judgments in scientific research
The first speaker on the program was Kevin Elliott, Ph.D., from the philosophy department at the University of South Carolina. His presentation, “Ethics and Value Judgments in the Environmental Health Sciences,” focused on how ethical decisions impact scientific objectivity. His discussion detailed how seemingly straightforward decisions, such as which endpoints to examine or even what kind of wording to use, can make a difference in how scientific research is viewed.
Author of a book on the topic, Elliott outlined three basic options to help a scientist make a value judgment. First, a scientist can try to establish personal boundaries in regard to ethical judgments. Second, a scientist can strive to focus solely on the science and allow policymakers to make the judgment calls. The final option is to use a balanced approach when making these decisions.
None of the options are free from drawbacks. “These aren't easy issues,” he stressed.
Elliott said he believes that scientists can justify making judgment decisions based on the range of society’s priorities. “Perhaps you folks have a special role to play as government scientists in dealing with these value judgments in ways that serve the public interest,” he said in closing.
Ethics in personal lives, communities, and the workplace
The final part of the ethics program was dedicated to applications of ethical decisions in several areas, including environmental law. Meave Tooher, J.D., who once worked with Androphy, is currently with Tooher & Barone, LLP, a law firm in New York specializing in environmental law and ethics. In her talk, “Tales from the trenches – real life ethics adventure,” she drew upon the current controversy over proposed hydraulic fracturing in Western New York, as well as a number of examples from her work with the New York State Ethics Commission.
“Ethics is real life,” she said. “Ethical choices all flow from who you are.”
Tooher reinforced the message that people should ask first. “If it confuses you at all,” she told the audience, “ask someone.” She pointed to many situations in which a simple question could have saved reputations and even jobs. It is much harder to defend a questionable decision after being accused of unethical behavior, she explained, especially if the case becomes high profile and attracts media coverage.
She also discussed pressures created by society’s insatiable desire to know. There is a difference, she explained, in transparency and being under the microscope. The way for scientists and others to lessen the pressure in making judgment calls is to become more informed about how others see a situation and better anticipate issues that could arise.
During the question and answer session following Tooher’s talk, Birnbaum discussed the need for transparency, and how looking at science from that standpoint may make ethics decisions a bit easier to manage. She hopes that before scientists make a decision, they try to look at what they are doing and saying in a neutral fashion. “Try to lay out what your assumptions are and what your guidance is,” she said.
(Melissa Kerr studies chemistry at North Carolina Central University. She is currently an intern in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)
And now for a little comic relief — becoming an ethics millionaire
The money was make believe, and there was never much doubt that Birnbaum would receive the winning check, but the fun-filled game, sandwiched between the very serious talks, helped drive home the importance of ethics at NIH and NIEHS. Birnbaum and her panel of advisers answered a series of 15 increasingly difficult questions about ethics at NIEHS, at times engaging the audience to vote for the correct answer.
Androphy and his staff managed to communicate several important messages about ethics. The permitted action isn’t always the one that simply feels right; the rules are not always intuitive, and they may be interpreted differently by different government agencies; and, it’s always better to ask first, rather than be forced to defend a decision afterwards.