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Chapter 4. Practical Ethics in Agronomic Research

Chapter 4. Practical Ethics in Agronomic Research

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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

feels right.

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.





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.


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



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

found out.

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.






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,



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

whole career.”

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.

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