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Chapter 4. Practical Ethics in Agronomic Research
Ethics and Competition
Performing to Specifications
Ethical Issues Associated with Technology Transfer
Ethics of Consulting
VII. Ethics in Research Administration
A. Ethical Hiring and Termination
B. Nurturing Scientists
C. Fair Evaluation
D. Honest Communication with Constituents
The first part of this chapter is a discussion of broad ethical and philosophical
issues. The second part focuses on the role of ethics in day-to-day decisions and
actions taken by agronomic researchers and research administrators in the practice
of research. I think most of the ideas presented are relevant to other areas of food
and agriculture research as well.
Perhaps not surprisingly, not much has been written in the agricultural literature
about the ethical dimensions of our everyday tasks. Apparently, we take it for
granted that everyone who is educated enough to be a researcher knows how to
behave ethically as a researcher. In introspecting on this topic, I find that most dayto-day decisions I make have some ethical content, but I do not perform a systematic ethical analysis on each one. From an ethical standpoint, I just do what
When I tried to articulate in this chapter what feels right ethically, I encountered a situation very similar to the one I encountered when some colleagues and
I developed our first computer simulation model. I found that my mental model
of ethical behavior for agronomists was at least as vague as my mental model of
alfalfa growth and development had been, even though I was supposed to be an
alfalfa expert. It was hard to put it on paper or describe it precisely in terms of
In this chapter, I share with you the results of my effort to develop a clearer
conceptual framework for the important ethical decisions with which agronomic
researchers are confronted every day. Because I am not trained in the disciplines
of ethics or philosophy, I cannot produce a scholarly treatise on this subject. I can
only make a personal statement, which is no doubt very much conditioned by my
own unique genetics, cultural background, upbringing, education, and experience.
PRACTICAL ETHICS INAGRONOMIC RESEARCH
II. BASIC CONCEPTS
I think of ethics as a process by which we distinguish between right and wrong
behavior. The concepts of bad and good are different than right and wrong. Thus,
ethical behavior and unethical behavior can each lead to both good and bad consequences. Ethics is also a discipline sometimes referred to as moral philosophy.
The adjective ethical connotes moral approval and implies that the actions or
behavior it describes are in accord with some approved standard or code. The standard or code may be formally stated or implicit. Unethical, of course, describes
behavior that does not comply with accepted standards or codes. The word ethic
is sometimes used to describe a particular group of moral principles or practices,
e.g., the Christian ethic.
Each of us has a personal code of ethics, that is, some internal standard of behavior. We might find it difficult to articulate the code, but it is evident in our behavior. Needless to say, personal codes of ethics differ a lot among individuals. It
is worthwhile to examine our personal codes of behavior to see how well they conform to codes of ethics and behavior of various groups with which we identify.
To some extent, ethical and unethical behaviors are learned behaviors, partly the
result of our past experience, including early childhood experience. Given counseling, both adults and children are known to change patterns of behavior, usually but not always from unethical to ethical behavior. This lends further support to
the idea that ethical behavior is learned.
One should not underestimate the power of early indoctrination in moral and
ethical concepts. Minimally, such training enables humans to function and share
responsibilities within family and larger groups, thus providing a basis for civilized life.
At the extreme, such indoctrination apparently can cause persistent and paralyzing feelings of shame and guilt. Some people must anesthetize those feelings
to function and thereafter their behavior is not inhibited by conscience. An important function of education and socialization should be to help people interpret
the inner voice and subject its admonitions to rational analysis.
Heichel (1 99 1 ) challenged agronomists to develop or adopt a code of ethical
conduct to reassure various constituencies. The American Society of Agronomy
(ASA) officially adopted a Statement of Ethics in late 1992. The statement is
reprinted frequently in the various journals published by ASA. Other scientific
societies developed or adopted codes of ethics fairly recently. The flurry of interest in codes of ethics was triggered by different factors in different areas of science.
c. SCIENTIFIC MISCONDUCT
Among other outcomes of some well-publicized cases of alleged scientific misconduct in the 1980s, the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of
Engineering, and Institute of Medicine convened a Panel on Scientific Responsibility and the Conduct of Research (1992). The panel’s report identifies falsification and fabrication of data and plagiarism as scientific misconduct.
These clearly unethical practices are distinguishedfrom another list of practices
that the panel labels “questionable scientific practices.” The latter include such
practices as failing to retain important data for a reasonable period of time, maintaining inadequate research records, denying peers reasonable access to materials
or data supporting published papers, inadequately supervising research subordinates and exploiting them, and several others.
If these questionable practices are part of an intent to deceive or mislead, they
are clearly unethical. In many cases, however, they are the result of neglect or sloppiness, which are in a gray area from the standpoint of ethics.
The panel identified a third category they labeled “other misconduct.” This includes behavior that is clearly unethical but not unique to science. Behaviors such
as sexual harassment, misuse of funds, and vandalism of research facilities fall into
this category.The three categories were perceived by the panel to be distinctly different and require different remedial approaches and disincentives.
From the extensive discussion of unethical behavior, one can draw some conclusions about what constitutes ethical behavior. In my opinion, there are four key,
practical principles of ethical behavior. They are honesty, integrity, fairness, and
service. Although we may not agree precisely on the meaning of these words, I
think that everyone likely to be reading this chapter has concepts of honesty, integrity, fairness, and service. As each of us attempts to give them meaning in our
everyday lives and to apply them in individual research situations, we do not have
to start from scratch. My concepts of honesty, integrity, fairness, and service, and
the way they have been influenced by others, are as follows.
Honesty is the quality of truthfulness. Senge (1990, p. 159) identifies telling the
truth as a simple but “profound” strategy for achieving goals. He says commitment
PRACTICAL ETHICS IN AGRONOMIC RESEARCH
to the truth is “a relentless willingness to root out the ways we limit or deceive ourselves from seeing what is, and to continually challenge our theories of why things
are the way they are.”
I will illustrate my concept of integrity with a story. Many years ago, a visitor
whose name and affiliation I have long since forgotten spoke at Purdue University. He lamented the loss of a “national secular ethic” in the United States. The
principle or code he wanted restored could be stated simply as follows: unethical
behavior is wrong even if no one finds out about it. His evidence for the loss of a
national secular ethic included studies of public response to reports of cheating
on quiz shows, shoplifting in grocery stores, and refusing to cooperate with police.
In each case, a majority of persons surveyed judged the behavior to be unethical only if the perpetrators were caught. They did not seem to identify with either
the perpetrators of the unethical behavior or the persons who were injured by it.
They apparently recognized the difference between honesty and dishonesty but did
not have a concept of integrity.
Integrity broadens the concept of honesty to include the context in which honest or dishonest behavior occurs. You have integrity if you are honest when you
will likely suffer bad consequences from being honest andor you are unlikely to
suffer bad consequences from being dishonest, perhaps because you will not be
Fairness involves treating other people fairly and not seeking to gain unfair advantage. Obviously, this is not a definition because I used derivations of the word
fair in the explanatory statement. Fairness has dimensions of equal treatment,
equal opportunity, and the “level playing field.” The reader already has a concept
of fairness, although we might arrive at different answers if asked to identify fairness or lack of it in any specific situation. Perhaps we could resolve that difference
through a good analysis of costs and benefits in that situation; perhaps not.
Agronomists generally value science in the service of mankind (Holt, 1989).
The concept of service as ethical behavior seems consistent with the utilitarian approach to ethical decision making and with seeking to optimize benefits.
The fact that an individual or group stands to benefit from service to others, i.e.,
enlightened self-interest, does not diminish the value of a particular act of service.
Of course, totally unselfish service is held up as an ideal by many groups, for example, “greater love hath no man . . .
Covey (1989) lists fairness, honesty, integrity, and service among other principles on which one should center hisher life and base hisher decision making. He
believes these are self-evident values and thus may be to some extent innate. For
example, little children on the playground may be heard to exclaim, “That isn’t
fair!” They seem to have a sense of fairness even before they have been taught the
full meaning of fairness.
Although 1 know of no data on this question, I perceive that many if not most
U.S. agronomic researchers are associated in some way with organized religion.
Religions usually prescribe codes of ethical behavior, establishing these by appeal
to the authority of a deity or prophets. A basic philosophical issue is whether
(i) we should behave ethically because it is the will of a higher power or authority or otherwise woven into the fabric of nature or whether (ii) we should behave
ethically because it is the practical thing to do. The latter stance is congruent with
a utilitarian approach to ethical decision making and with the concept of enlightened self-interest.
For purposes of this discussion, I do not think it makes any difference why one
accepts these as ethical principles. Even if one accepts them as divinely revealed,
decisions on how to apply them will inevitably be utilitarian because each such decision depends on the situation. If we accept these principles, we have a basis for
deciding what constitutes ethical behavior in specific practical situations. We can
ask, “Is this behavior honest and fair? Is this action characterized by integrity and
Of course, accepting these principles is just the first hurdle. Answering the questions for specific situations is often extremely difficult. Nevertheless, in my opinion if we can, with integrity, answer yes to the questions and we have not deluded
ourselves, the behavior is ethical, even if the consequences are ultimately bad. In
many situations, only the person making the decisions will know if the resulting
behavior is ethical.
A commitment to the principles previously discussed establishes the foundation
for ethical behavior, but adherence to the principles does not guarantee good outcomes or optimal benefits. Unfortunately, the old maxim that “the road to hell is
paved with good intentions” applies in this situation.
III. ETHICS OF CHOOSING RESEARCH
The focus of ethical concern in the biomedical field (Monsen er al., 1991) is on
behavior that is generally agreed to be right or wrong, such as the misconduct identified by the panel described previously. In a sense, ethical concern in the biomedical field was very inwardly focused. The published literature on agricultural ethics,
however, is much more outwardly focused, addressing much more controversial
issues, especially the selection of subject matter for research (Thompson, 1988).
I think the sustainable agriculture movement played a key role in sensitizing
agronomists to ethical issues in research and development (R&D).In the 1980s,
PRACTICAL ETHICS IN AGRONOMIC RESEARCH
sustainable agriculture advocates maintained that some kinds of research, even if
conducted properly, lead to technologies that damage the environment, consume
inordinate amounts of natural resources, andor render small, family farms less
able to compete in highly competitive markets.
Many agricultural scientists were taken aback when accused of being unethical
because their research addressed a certain subject matter. They had neither fabricated nor falsified data nor committed plagiarism, the sins usually associated with
scientific misconduct. They thought they had performed a valuable service by creating new or improved technology that was adopted in practice. One of my colleagues, a soil fertility specialist, said, “I feel like they are trying to nullify my
I do not remember a time when agronomic scientists were not occasionally criticized by people who thought they were unduly influenced by private sponsors of
research, especially when such sponsors were suppliers of inputs for production,
including fertilizers, pesticides, seed, etc. Some of these critics suggested that
agronomic researchers actually falsified or contrived data to please their sponsors
and assure continued support. Such behavior, of course, would be unethical.
People trained in philosophy and ethics became interested in agriculture and
have written extensively about agricultural ethics, especially in the past decade.
No attempt was made to review that extensive literature here. I find the aforementioned article by Thompson (1988) to be a useful summary of broad ethical
issues in agriculture. I drew heavily on it for the perspectives provided in this
Thompson (1988) identifies productivity as the ethical theme of traditionakonventional agriculture and agricultural research and lists three other themes favored
by critics. Critics argue that new technology is developed and implemented in conventional agriculture without sufficient concern for its externalities, that is, its potential effects on environment, international justice, and agrarianism. I generally
use a slightly different classification of the cross-cutting issues or themes, namely, environment, food and worker safety, natural resources, and social impacts.
The externalities are, by definition, effects that are not measured or accounted
for in R&D leading to new technology. Some critics of traditional agricultural
R&D are skeptical of attempts to internalize externalities by adding additional dimensions to R&D efforts. Others would go so far as to require an economic and
social impact study before a research project could be launched. Most researchers
would agree that in many research situations it is impossible or impractical to evaluate all the possible externalities.