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What scientists ought to do for non-scientists, and why: Obligations of scientists (part 5)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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If you’re a scientist, are there certain things you’re obligated to do for society (not just for your employer)? If so, where does this obligation come from?

This is part of the discussion we started back in September about special duties or obligations scientists might have to the non-scientists with whom they share a world. If you’re just coming to the discussion now, you might want to check out the post where we set out some groundwork for the discussion, plus the three posts on scientists’ negative duties (i.e., the things scientists have an obligation not to do): our consideration of powers that scientists have and should not misuse, our discussion of scientific misconduct, the high crimes against science that scientists should never commit, and our examination of how plagiarism is not only unfair but also hazardous to knowledge-building.

In this post, finally, we lay out some of the positive duties that scientists might have.

In her book Ethics of Scientific Research, Kristin Shrader-Frechette gives a pretty forceful articulation of a set of positive duties for scientists. She asserts that scientists have a duty to do research, and a duty to use research findings in ways that serve the public good. Recall that these positive duties are in addition to scientists’ negative duty to ensure that the knowledge and technologies created by the research do not harm anyone.

Where do scientists’ special duties come from? Shrader-Frechette identifies a number of sources. For one thing, she says, there are obligations that arise from holding a monopoly on certain kinds of knowledge and services. Scientists are the ones in society who know how to work the electron microscopes and atom-smashers. They’re the ones who have the equipment and skills to build scientific knowledge. Such knowledge is not the kind of thing your average non-scientist could build for himself.

Scientists also have obligations that arise from the fact that they have a good chance of success (at least, better than anyone else) when it comes to educating the public about scientific matters or influencing public policy. The scientists who track the evidence that human activity leads to climate change, for example, are the ones who might be able to explain that evidence to the public and argue persuasively for measures that are predicted to slow climate change.

As well, scientists have duties that arise from the needs of the public. If the public’s pressing needs can only be met with the knowledge and technologies produced by scientific research – and if non-scientists cannot produce such knowledge and technologies themselves – then if scientists do no work to meet these needs, who can?

As we’ve noted before, there is, in all of this, that Spiderman superhero ethos: with great power comes great responsibility. When scientists realize how much power their knowledge and skills give them relative to the non-scientists in society, they begin to see that their duties are greater than they might have thought.

Let’s turn to what I take to be Shrader-Frechette’s more controversial claim: that scientists have a positive duty to conduct research. Where does this obligation come from?

For one thing, she argues, knowledge itself is valuable, especially in democratic societies where it could presumably help us make better choices than we’d be able to make with less knowledge. Thus, those who can produce knowledge should produce it.

For another thing, Shrader-Frechette points out, society funds research projects (through various granting agencies and direct funding from governmental entities). Researchers who accept such research funding are not free to abstain from research. They can’t take the grants and put an addition on the house. Rather, they are obligated to perform the contracted research. This argument is pretty uncontroversial, I think, since asking for money to do the research that will lead to more scientific knowledge and then failing to use that money to build more scientific knowledge is deceptive.

But here’s the argument that I think will meet with more resistance, at least from scientists: In the U.S., in addition to funding particular pieces of scientific research, society pays the bill for training scientists. This is not just true for scientists trained at public colleges and universities. Even private universities get a huge chunk of their money to fund research projects, research infrastructure, and the scientific training they give their students from public sources, including but not limited to federal funding agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

The American people are not putting up this funding out of the goodness of their hearts. Rather, the public invests in the training of scientists because it expects a return on this investment in the form of the vital knowledge those trained scientists go on to produce and share with the public. Since the public pays to train people who can build scientific knowledge, the people who receive this training have a duty to go forth and build scientific knowledge to benefit the public.

Finally, Shrader-Frechette says, scientists have a duty to do research because if they don’t do research regularly, they won’t remain knowledgeable in their field. Not only will they not be up on the most recent discoveries or what they mean, but they will start to lose the crucial experimental and analytic skills they developed when they were being trained as scientists. For the philosophy fans in the audience, this point in Shrader-Frechette’s argument is reminiscent of Immanuel Kant’s example of how the man who prefers not to cultivate his talents is falling down on his duties. If everyone in society chose not to cultivate her talents, each of us would need to be completely self-sufficient (since we could not receive aid from others exercising their talents on our behalf) – and even that would not be enough, since we would not be able to rely on our own talents, having decided not to cultivate them.

On the basis of Shrader-Frechette’s argument, it sounds like every member of society who has had the advantage of scientific training (paid for by your tax dollars and mine) should be working away in the scientific knowledge salt-mine, at least until science has built all the knowledge society needs it to build.

And here’s where I put my own neck on the line: I earned a Ph.D. in chemistry (conferred in January 1994, almost exactly 20 years ago). Like other students in U.S. Ph.D. programs in chemistry, I did not pay for that scientific training. Rather, as Shrader-Frechette points out, my scientific training was heavily subsidized by the American tax payer. I have not build a bit of new chemical knowledge since the middle of 1994 (since I wrapped up one more project after completing my Ph.D.).

Have I fallen down on my positive duties as a trained scientist? Would it be fair for American tax payers to try to recover the funds they invested in my scientific training?

We’ll take up these questions (among others) in the next installment of this series. Stay tuned!

Shrader-Frechette, K. S. (1994). Ethics of scientific research. Rowman & Littlefield.
Posts in this series:

Questions for the non-scientists in the audience.

Questions for the scientists in the audience.

What do we owe you, and who’s “we” anyway? Obligations of scientists (part 1)

Scientists’ powers and ways they shouldn’t use them: Obligations of scientists (part 2)

Don’t be evil: Obligations of scientists (part 3)

How plagiarism hurts knowledge-building: Obligations of scientists (part 4)

What scientists ought to do for non-scientists, and why: Obligations of scientists (part 5)

What do I owe society for my scientific training? Obligations of scientists (part 6)

Are you saying I can’t go home until we cure cancer? Obligations of scientists (part 7)

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rkipling 1:09 am 12/28/2013

    I fully support your campaign to educate scientists to their ethical obligations. You suggest that scientists are ethically obligated to use their special powers for the betterment of mankind. That is a noble calling.

    Please understand that I am not hostile to this concept, but unless the scientist is independently wealthy who pays for the research facilities, equipment and materials?

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  2. 2. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 11:03 am 12/28/2013


    The material costs of producing scientific knowledge are a significant problem, I think, for those asserting that all scientists have a positive duty to conduct scientific research. I’m sympathetic to the idea that the public funds the training of scientists with the expectation of getting some return on that investment, but I don’t think it’s a straightforward quid pro quo.

    But this is something we’ll dig into in the next post in the series…

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  3. 3. rkipling 11:42 am 12/28/2013

    Dr. Stemwedel,

    I’m all for funding of basic research. As long as the funding is directed to highly capable scientists, I believe it would be a big mistake to expect returns on specific funding. We should have confidence that increased knowledge will be a benefit and over time will provide a return. I argue that only the scientist should determine the direction of the research where possible. Not all research will be fruitful. Discoveries from the few will more than pay for the unsuccessful. It absolutely should not be a quid pro quo, but the money has to come from somewhere. I’m interested in your thoughts on how to increase and direct basic research funding.

    Please consider your neck safe. By sharing your ethical philosophy with the rest of us, I contend you have paid in full. Further, I argue that your self-examination regarding this issue demonstrates yet another ethical aspect to cover. Many of us would benefit from periodic reexamination of what we previously believed to be true. It doesn’t surprise me at all that you do this.

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  4. 4. Devonshire 12:35 pm 12/28/2013

    “Science may have found a cure for most evils, but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all – the apathy of human beings.”

    Deaf/blind activist, Helen Keller, 1928

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  5. 5. Devonshire 2:55 pm 12/28/2013

    It is possible that our CHILDREN are our best assets in educating adults about science, as illustrated by the following quotes:

    (Source: Funny Science Quotes from Kids)

    . Biology

    Genetics explains why you look like your father and if you don’t why you should.


    To most people solutions mean finding the answers. But to chemists solutions are things that are still all mixed up.

    Some oxygen molecules help fires burn while others help make water, so sometimes it’s brother against brother.

    When they broke open molecules, they found they were only stuffed with atoms. But when they broke open atoms, they found them stuffed with explosions.

    Etc, etc. Yes, CHILDREN are our best resources to make things “interesting” to adults.

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  6. 6. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 4:39 pm 12/28/2013


    Those quotes are cute, but I’m struggling to see what they have to do with my post.

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  7. 7. rloldershaw 11:18 am 12/29/2013

    At the top of my personal list of obligations for a scientist would be honesty. Honesty about what we have good and extensive empirical evidence for, and importantly, honesty about the far larger realm of what is not well understood.

    Lately the hype in the fields of particle physics and cosmology has been laid on thickly and unscientifically. Worse still, some theoretical physicists have argued that we may have to give up the predictions/empirical testing of the traditional scientific method. They seem oblivious to the slippery slope they would push us onto.

    Honesty, and its requirement of humility, serve science and society well. Hype is betrayal of scientific principles and obligations. So is the unwillingness to question assumptions.

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  8. 8. joshuagenes 10:20 am 12/30/2013

    Government funding of scientists education is a form of redistribution of wealth in the form of education. It takes from tax-payers and gives to certain people. In this case budding scientist. I would reckon that most budding scientists are mostly from stable families that are middle to upper-class and not the poor. So it basically amount to charity for the types of people the government values; in this case… scientist. If this is you then your ethical obligation is first to do what you are trained to do and second to mentor the less fortunate. Not everyone trained to become a scientist does so. So you are left with mentoring the less fortunate. Mentoring also improves the quality and success of budding scientists so really you are paying it forward.

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  9. 9. rkipling 11:46 am 12/30/2013


    I question your assumption about the economic status of those pursuing degrees in the sciences. For this discussion let’s broaden from scientists to STEM. These are the people who will make a technology-based society function, educate the next generations in STEM, and advance our understanding of ourselves and the universe around us. We need every one of them we can get.

    Anything that increases the number of STEM graduates is very likely to have an excellent payback. There are only so many with the ability to complete the coursework, so spending on them is self-limiting. If you compare this spending against other tax expenditures, I think most would agree that it’s a bargain.

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  10. 10. Asteroid Miner 3:13 pm 12/30/2013

    Kristin Shrader-Frechette did not write my job description.

    Scientists do not hold a monopoly on any kind of knowledge or service. The information and knowledge is readily available in the library for anybody who wants to learn it.

    Scientists are the ones who have the IQ and motivation required.

    Scientists have no chance of success when it comes to educating the public about scientific matters or influencing public policy. We live in a PLUTOCRACY. Only the billionaires have the ability to propagandize the public about scientific matters or influence public policy. Only the billionaires have the money necessary to do those things. Scientists are poor but poverty stricken.

    If the public’s pressing needs can only be met with the knowledge and technologies produced by scientific research, then it is up to congress or the billionaires to provide the money necessary to do the research. Scientists cannot provide the money necessary to do the research.

    Scientists are not chained to their work any more than any other kind of labor is chained to its work. Slavery was abolished by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and by 2 amendments. Scientists have a right to change jobs just like everybody else.

    If the public invests in the training of scientists, why did I have to pay back my college loans?

    In a technological society, all citizens need to know a great deal of science. Notice how many people get the wrong answer on Global Warming [GW]. If we don’t stop GW immediately, either human evolution will once again be forced by rapid climate change or we humans will go extinct.
    Notice how many people get the wrong answer on nuclear power because they haven’t studied the science and math.  Nuclear power is our only hope of stopping GW.

    All high school students should be required to take 4 years of physics, 4 years of chemistry, 4 years of biology and 8 years [double classes] of math.   Probability and statistics should be included starting in the third grade.

       In college, Everybody, regardless of major, should be required to take the Engineering and Science Core Curriculum [E&SCC] plus a laboratory probability and statistics course plus more physics lab courses plus one course in computer programming.

    E&SCC = 2 years of calculus at the college level, 2 years of physics and 1 year of chemistry. All engineering and science students are required to take the E&SCC in their freshman and sophomore years.

    Most people, including people with college degrees in subjects other than science and engineering, use their emotions [emote] when they should be doing math. Most people are afraid of nuclear power because they do not understand it. Nor do they know how to think rather than emote [have emotional reactions]. “To think” means “to do math.”

    EVERYBODY should be trained in science and math

    8. joshuagenes: No upper class person would ever major in a subject that pays as badly as science does. Scientists are from the lower class. See 9. rkipling

    Kristin Shrader-Frechette: If you want scientists to stay in science, do the capitalist thing: PAY THEM WHAT YOU CLAIM THEY ARE WORTH. Slavery has ended and you are not welcome to try to bring slavery back. It is very reasonable to be angry at Kristin Shrader-Frechette.

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  11. 11. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 4:18 pm 12/30/2013

    I am not in full agreement with Shrader-Frechette here, as the next post (or two) in the series will make clear.

    However, let me toss a question out for discussion while you’re waiting:

    How would you feel about Ph.D. students in the sciences paying for that training, the same way students in medical schools and law schools pay for theirs?

    Removing the free-ride they’re getting from the public on this training, after all, removes the “public investment in your training means you owe the public something back” line of argument.

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  12. 12. rkipling 7:45 pm 12/30/2013

    I assume you are talking about student loans. The problem with this approach is repayment. With downward pressure on potential earning power of MD’s, even they may find this approach too burdensome. Given the average pay for many STEM PhD’s, they would likely have even more difficulty than MD’s.

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  13. 13. Asteroid Miner 1:07 am 12/31/2013

    11. Janet D. Stemwedel: Education should be free. Just like K-12 education, which was all you needed 2 centuries ago. As I said, everybody needs a great deal more education than that now, just to be good citizens. The billionaires are the free riders. School is work and well worth paying students to do. E&S students also invent things, but that isn’t key.

    I want no part of Kristin Shrader-Frechette, and you shouldn’t either.

    Again, here is what it is, Janet D. Stemwedel: We have 40 years until the collapse if Business As Usual [BAU] continues. The collapse of agriculture forces the collapse of civilization and the collapse of the human population: From 7 to 9 Billion down to 70 thousand, or maybe all the way to zero. Extinction.
    To avoid those collapses, we must:
    1. Put an end to PLUTOCRACY
    2. Educate everybody in climate science and the fact of natural background radiation so that we can
    3. Convert from fossil fuels to nuclear to put a stop to Global Warming in 5 years.
    Is that clear enough for you? Is 7 billion people dying all at once from starvation at all significant to you? As of now, “only” 5 million people per year are dying in this new, enhanced, holocaust.

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  14. 14. rloldershaw 10:46 am 12/31/2013

    A shift from fossil fuels to fuel cells and solar energy would be best for the environment. A lot of progress has been made in this area and with enough funding and encouragement much more progress is possible.

    Overpopulation is a major problem for our species. It drives most environmental problems – directly or indirectly. Is there any way to bring down birth rates in a humane way? Massive education and creation of stable economic conditions in developing countries?

    Almost everyone (>99%) agrees that the that gross income disparity must be reversed. Educate the <1% to realize that service to others is more rewarding than greed?

    Well, why not dream big?

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  15. 15. rkipling 11:08 am 12/31/2013

    Dr. Stemwedel,

    Please trust that you do not want your blog taken over by the, let’s call them passionate, AGW commenters on either side.

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  16. 16. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 11:12 am 12/31/2013


    I appreciate that there are many, many big issues connected to the question of how we function successfully as a society.

    Please let’s keep the discussion here focused on the questions I’ve laid out here in the comments and in the original post. Else I will start unapproving comments.

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  17. 17. Gaythia 1:10 pm 12/31/2013

    It seems to me that Shrader-Frechette needs to start out more broadly, with the obligations of all humans towards promoting the common social good.

    And with defining more carefully what it means to be publicly subsidized. Science graduate students are performing work, at artificially low wages in exchange for their educations. Financiers, and corporate CEOs, for example, are feeding at the public trough at much higher levels of compensation with, arguably, much less, or even by undermining that which is common social good.

    Also, I worry about this comment: “at least until science has built all the knowledge society needs it to build.” There are already substantial numbers of those who wish to slam the door on science. I believe that scientists (as part of our contribution to society, even) need to stand firm against efforts by humans to block the acquisition of scientific knowledge, even as we push for proper use of such knowledge.

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  18. 18. rkipling 2:23 pm 12/31/2013

    In a capitalist system, price of a good or wages for a skill are influenced by quantity supply and quantity demand. (The PhD candidate who taught Econ 101 emphasized the “quantity” part. I always get a chuckle remembering the horror on the faces of the business students when they learned there would be graphs.) Anyway, wages follow this axiom for CEO’s, PhD’s and everyone else. I too sometimes question the judgment of some company boards regarding CEO selection and pay, but eventually it is a self-correcting system.

    Quantity demand is something PhD candidates should take into account, in addition to how they will pay for their education, when selecting a field. In any economic system, other people will make decisions on scientist’s pay. Only in the case of independent wealth is a PhD candidate’s decision disconnected from considerations of personal economics. However unfair capitalism may seem to some, I’m unaware of a socialist or communist system that offers greater opportunities. Unfortunately life is unfair.

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  19. 19. Asteroid Miner 1:29 am 01/1/2014

    “A Warning From Carl Sagan on Scientific Ignorance”

    “Sagan nailed it.” Exactly. If the people in general don’t understand science, democracy ends. But the present situation is far worse. Anything more I say would be too easy to misinterpret, misconstrue, or lead off the track. So I will try to refrain from the examples I gave before. We have a huge amount of catching up to do because the poverty of our education over the past century has cost us a lot of our democracy already.

    Please don’t construe this example to be only about Global Warming:
    “Institutionalizing delay: foundation funding and the creation of U.S. climate change counter-movement organizations”
    It can be read in a more general way as a story about the plutocratic attack on democracy in general. The cure is for all citizens to be sufficiently well educated in science and math to not fall for the propaganda.

    Training in science would help people in general overcome dogma in general. Reference “The Beginning of Infinity” by David Deutsch. Deutsch talks about The Enlightenment and Enlightenments plural. Will we fall into a new Dark Age? Dark Ages seem to be the standard. Staying enlightened is the goal. The human brain hasn’t changed.

    We are now in the midst of conversion/growth from a static society to a dynamic society. A static society is almost all previous civilizations. Contrary to popular belief, people in static and stone age civilizations were much less happy than we are today. It is necessary to complete the conversion to a fully dynamic civilization. Failure to become fully dynamic would entail collapse back to very unhappy times.

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  20. 20. rkipling 5:16 pm 01/1/2014

    Asteroid Miner,

    I too found Carl Sagan interesting.

    Your recollection of the Stone Age exceeds my own so I defer to you regarding the relative happiness of people from that period compared to the present. What I just pointed out, albeit sarcastically, is that the comparative happiness which you state as fact, is unknowable.

    It isn’t for me to judge if you are on-topic or not. From the tone of your writing, you seem unhappy. Please see no criticism in my words. None is intended. Being human is neither simple nor trouble-free. Take my words as from one human being to another.

    You might find it beneficial to find someone to discuss your issues with in person? Comments and replies can have a significant time delay. Also, the tone is much more difficult to determine in someone else’s writing as is expressing emphasis in our own writing, at least it is for me.

    As long as dialog continues about scientific ethics, I see hope for the future.

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  21. 21. Endoceras 10:13 am 01/6/2014

    Scientists generally have our education narrowly focused on science and are often quite ignorant about ethics and philosophy. This poses a challenge for scientific ethics.

    Overall, the questions of obligations runs into Hume’s is-ought problem. Unless we accept some set of moral standards, which are outside of the realm of science, we can’t say “ought.”

    By asserting that scientists ought not to do anything harmful, this clashes with much of the justification given for embryonic stem cell research. The two common arguments in favor were that research ought to proceed no matter what and that something with potential for medical benefit ought to proceed. Both of these ignore the obvious harm done to the embryo. In reality, the ethical question for embryonic stem cell research is whether the harm done to the embryo is outweighed by the (often exaggerated) potential for medical benefit. As a whole, that question has been ignored or badly answered (yes, an embryo does not show a full set of behavioral and mental processes associated with an adult human, but neither do disabled or asleep adult humans). Discussion of the rights of an embryo would be off-topic, but the poor quality of ethical arguments is important.

    Misrepresentation of science as favoring a particular agenda is a widespread problem. Perhaps the most conspicuous at present are those trying to claim the authority of science for a religious or anti-religious agenda. New atheism and creation science both misrepresent science, history, and logic to try to impose their views on the public. Too often, scientific sources have condoned the new atheist falsehoods, which in turn makes the religious skeptical of science. Everyone uses both faith and reason in their judgments. The two are not opposites; there is reasonable and unreasonable faith. Both atheistic and theistic worldviews include reasonable and unreasonable examples.

    Doing basic research is generally very poorly supported. Research with good potential for immediate commercial application is popular with business funders, and there are hot topics and big picture projects that may draw funding, but doing the basic research that builds and tests the big picture is rarely considered worth funding. Universities looking to science as a source of cash will favor big grants over basic information. It’s not easy to do research when people expect the information to be provided for free. Not that doing science makes one worthy of a lavish salary, but earning enough to live on would be conducive to doing more research.

    If I’m spending time educating the public about science (more or less my official job description at a teaching-centered school), then I am not spending that time on research. Both are important, and different scientists will have a different balance of the two.

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