Monday, December 12, 2011
Academically, I am not a man of ethics though ethical considerations may often guide my academic practices. I am a man of Literature and, as a professor of English for Science and Technology, when I look at the use of ‘hedging devices’ or use of the modal verbs in scientists’ discourse, or their reports, hypotheses, predictions and conclusions, for example, I sometimes wonder whether they tend to compromise fact or truth, which is their primary commitment; or it is merely convention or tradition to say things the way they are said?
It is perhaps ethical to exercise caution because you do not want to jump to a conclusion on the basis of fragmentary evidence, unestablished fact, questionable belief, or unrelated conceptual relationship. As it is, when you are involved in an academic investigation, you presume that something is possible, and try to substantiate it logically. You follow a methodical process, mentally formulating a hypothesis to solve a particular problem even as you cannot be sure about its eventual validity. You may call it ‘conjecture’, if you like, but the sequence from ‘conjecture’ to ‘conclusion’ suggests an increasing degree of coherence and scientific certainty.
When you say: “We will definitely reach the target” (100% certainty), or “we will probably reach the target” (more than 60% certainty), or “we will possibly reach the target” or “we may reach the target” (more than 30% certainty), you know well the sense or value of your assertion, or how certain you are about what you are saying. It also reflects your attitude or intention that emerges from, what may be called, your ethical decision.
Simultaneously, you use language devices that show your ‘strategic and/or pragmatic competence’ for saying or not saying things which may create problems for you or the organization you belong to. In your day to day affairs , bureaucracy or administration, you may hide things to be politically correct or socially acceptable.
Let me cite an example. If there is massive resistance to Kundankulam nuclear power plant in Tamilnadu, or its setting up in Jaitapura, Maharastra, even after scientists’ assurance that nuclear energy is safe, -- Dr APJ Abdul Kalam himself visited the site and testified to the fact that the nuclear plant in Kundankulam is safe,-- how ethical it would be to reject the nuclear energy option, scientifically speaking? The trust deficit we notice in, say nuclear energy use, is a challenge. How to convince people that it is good, safe and cost effective in the long run?
At a time like this, when corruption, the buzz word today, seems to compromise truth at every level, and people’s expectation for transparency , accountability and integrity in administration, as also in research and development, has increased. We are all expected to uphold certain universally accepted standards for doing science and technology just as we have to prove our social responsibilities to the larger community that is exposed to risks, costs and benefits.
Maybe, you have a positive attitude or intention, or you’re honest to yourself when you behave or respond to a matter in a particular way, but good intentions do not necessarily result in good ethical decisions. You may mean well when as a researcher you find one of your research students or associates who has worked hard for years on a project and not come up with publishable data, you lend him some of your own data and “gift” him authorship, too, because you believe that you have a duty to the student (or associate) to ensure a publication. Ethically, this response of yours has a public consequence for the practice of science as a profession. You make an unethical decision with the best of intentions.
What I am trying to say is that whatever is ethically unworthy is evil, simply not acceptable. Your conduct, dealing with others or yourself, academic or personal, should be irreproachable, marked by self-control and intellectual discipline. “To evade discipline is to empty life of its significance,” explains S. Radhakrishnan in The Principal Upanisads( p. 109). It is moral uprightness, rather than mechanical ritual, that matters in all that you do as a researcher or practitioner of science and technology.
My experience convinces me that we are not limited by what we are, but we are limited by what we are not. Science, and for that matter, arts becomes a means to overcome this limitation, and thus, allows us not only to know ourselves but also to expand on what we are. This means we should remain open to healthy revisions that we can make to our way of thinking, and incorporate new perspectives into our outlook. In other words, we should not let our own rigidity destroy our potential, but rather we should evince a forward-looking, tolerant, compassionate, and open mindset if we wish to create future.
By attending such a course, as organized here in collaboration with the DST, you would appreciate that it is your responsibility to know professional conventions as well as to understand the public nature of morality. It seeks to make you an ethical practitioner in your profession, and makes you understand that it is unethical, for example, to fabricate or manipulate data and plagiarise information or research, or publish other people’s data as your own. The research ethics you will learn about should help you make ethical decisions relative to matters of scientific research and publication, and know what is “questionable behavior” or “misconduct” (other than fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism which are already punishable offence in many an institution).
Such courses are necessary because we as academics know how our students ‘google’ information and freely ‘cut’ and ‘paste’ and plagiarise. As academics we are collectively responsible for the professional conduct of our students. If the majority of students do not learn their responsibilities as future researchers or scientists, “then cases of unintentional misconducts and questionable practice are inevitable.”
All the same, this course on Ethics and Values in Science points to the need for developing the culture, or the mental habit, for responsible professional conduct in tune with the widely acceptable practices in the realm of Knowledge.
I join my colleagues in welcoming you to the Course and wish you a happy stay in ISM.
--PROFESSOR R.K. SINGH
TEXT OF MY ADDRESS TO THE PARTICIPANTS OF A TRAINING PROGRAMME ON ETHICS AND VALUES IN SCIENCE at Indian School of Mines on 12 December 2012