SAN FRANCISCO, CA, DECEMBER 18, 2014 – All sciences give rise to ethical questions, but perhaps none more so than those being raised by the sciences addressing Earth’s quickly changing regions and systems, such as climatology, ocean sciences, glaciology, and other geosciences.

A group of scientists and teachers here at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) have been meeting all week to discuss “geoethics” — not just the principles that scientists, students, and employers need to consider in their research, papers and publications, and in their communications with the public, but questions about advocacy, policy input, and even stewardship of the environment and climate.

Recognizing the Importance of Ethics

AGU has 61,000 members worldwide, and new membership requires an agreement with its Code of Conduct. In 2011, AGU created a Task Force on Scientific Ethics, “to review and update existing policies and procedures for dealing with scientific misconduct.”

A statement by ex-AGU President Michael McPhadden from the AGU’s ethics section. Source: American Geophysical Union

Then-AGU President Michael McPhadden called for a recommitment to scientific integrity in the wake of the revelation in early 2012 that Peter Gleick, then chair of AGU’s Task Force on Scientific Ethics, had obtained internal documents from the climate contrarian Heartland Institute by subterfuge. (Gleick resigned his chairmanship shortly after, but remains a member of the AGU.)

Other events have emphasized the role and relevance of ethics in the geosciences, such as the convictions of several Italian scientists for a failure to predict the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake that killed more than 300 people (last month an appeal of their convictions was granted); the release of stolen e-mails of prominent scientists in 2009 (promoted by climate doubters as “ClimateGate“); private climate engineering projects that have been carried out with little or no public input and approval; and questions about whether geoscientists should be studying the potential of geoengineering to avert or avoid the potentially worst consequences of human-caused global warming.

Since 2012, more than 20 allegations involving ethical issues have been submitted to AGU. Plagiarism is the most common complaint; others have been about authorship, data ownership, and harassment. Only a few have had to go to the AGU Ethics Committee for resolution.

The National Science Foundation requires ethical training for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, but it’s “too little, too late” said David Mogk, Department Chairman at the University of Montana’s Department of Earth Sciences. Mogk has been prominent among those at AGU’s meeting thinking about how geoethics can be taught to college students; the role of professional geoscience societies; and raising awareness of common geoethical issues, as he discussed in an interview after a Town Hall discussion today on the subject.

He calls geoethics “an increasingly important component of the pre-professional training of (geo)scientists.”

In the Anthropocene — the modern era in which humans exert an influence that rivals the natural forces that until now have alone shaped the planet — the sciences that study climate and other geophysical processes are more important than ever. As scientists work together, and grapple with the implications of their findings, the ethical questions are certain to get only more numerous and more difficult.

David Appell

A regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections since 2012, David Appell, Ph.D., is a freelance writer living in Salem, Oregon, specializing in the physical sciences, technology, and the environment. His...