S&T Ethics 5

Intermission story: Priorities

[You will find this story on the internet in several variations, some with sand instead of water and with the professor pouring his tea or a can of bear into the bucket in the end. Here, I modified the story according to the way I demonstrated it to you in class.]

A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a very large and empty bucket and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the bucket was full. They agreed that it was. The professor then picked up a jar of pebbles and poured them into the bucket. He shook it lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open spaces between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the bucket was full. They agreed it was. The professor picked up a can of water and poured it into the bucket and of course filled up everything else. He then asked once more if it was full. The students responded with an unanimous yes.

“Now,” said the professor, as the laughter subsided, “I want you to recognize that this bucket represents your life. The space in it is the time that you have. The golf balls are the things that you need to be happy – your family, your partner, your health, your children, your friends, your favourite passions – things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter, like your job, your house, your car. The water is everything else – the small stuff that you fill the rest of time with, like watching TV or looking at your smartphone. If you put the water into the bucket first,” he continued, ” there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your partner dancing. Play another match chess. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and fix the disposal. Take care of the golf balls first – the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just water.”


I believe, we can relate the essence of this story – the importance of setting priorities – to the decisions we make and options we choose in our professional role, for example as scientists. Last week and today we talk a lot about how to be a “good scientists”, and very often the choices we make affect not only our role as scientists, but also our private life and that of many other people. Reflecting on what are our golf balls – what to do so that we can go to bed in the evening and think “Yeah, that was a good day!” – can sometimes help step back and see things from a different perspective! “Do I really have to insist on this agreement, on this procedure, on my financial interest, on my call upon my students to work hard? Is it really all about efficiency, precision, success, fame, money?”. Maybe, we find that we go to bed with a higher degree of satisfaction and happiness after we made someone else (a student, a colleague, a collaborator) have an easier life, or when we step back from our stressed and pressured attitude towards our work, take it easier and remember the virtues of good scientific practice, especially fairness, honesty and self-control.

3.6 Collaborations and their problems

Science is a community endeavour that is performed in a network of people, institutions, social spheres and interests. Almost no scientist is working on his or her own, isolated, without any connections to the world outside of the academic ivory tower. Let’s have a look at this network:


First of all, scientists usually work in teams within their institute. Even though they might work on different projects in slightly different fields of expertise, they still share facilities, devices, service competences and – for example, in institutional meetings, symposia, colloquia, etc. – ideas and visions.

Then, there are colleagues and peers outside of the “home institute”: those in neighbouring institutes of the same university or labs of the same company, those in similar institutes in other cities or countries. Here, I am still talking about fellow scientists of the same orientation (for example, natural sciences), but not necessarily the same discipline (for example, physics, chemistry, biology). These collaborating scientists team up because their combined expertises can result in something that they themselves alone wouldn’t be able to achieve. An example could be the Human Genome Project in which scientists (biochemists, molecular biologists, geneticists, etc.) all over the planet worked together in order to decipher the human genetic code.

Another form of collaboration occurs when “very different scientists” work together, for example natural scientists with social scientists or philosophers. As we will see, the demands on this high degree of interdisciplinarity is very different from the kind of collaboration mentioned above. An example for this field of networking is technology assessment where the social and ethical implications of scientific and technological progress is analyses and controlled by experts with very different knowledge backgrounds.

Science is strongly linked to politics since it is often a political decision what fields of science to support financially and what to expect from scientists. Scientists apply for grants and fight for their share of the cake, negotiating with the public funding sources. If the public (represented by politics) is understood as a collaboration partner, then its clear interest is innovation and increased wealth and well-being as the result of tax-money supported science. An example from my own experience is Germany’s decision to switch to renewable energies and abandon both nuclear energy and burning fossil fuels. Part of the plan is the introduction of electric cars. A crucial engineering element for the successful establishment of electric cars is the efficacy and efficiency of batteries in those cars. My university (WWU Münster) received a huge research grant (including a newly built institute) for the research on hydrogen cells, with the clear goal to be able to equip cars with high performance batteries in the very near future. This example can give us a hint in which way politics influences the course of science and its particular objectives.

The other crucial collaboration partner of science is (private sector) industry. It is estimated that 80% of the financial sources for performing scientific research is coming from companies and corporations. It is clear that industrial partners have very clear and particular interests in product development and profit generation – goals that are in sharp contrast to some of science’s virtues. Some worry that the industrial involvement shifts the focus of science too much away from “basic research” and too much towards “applied research”. A good example for a field where conflicts naturally arise if pharmacology. Huge pharma corporations dominate not only the drug market but also the related research field and what kind of pharmacological research and development is performed (mostly for “profitable” drugs that have a big market potential rather than medicine for poor people).

In this overview, we can see two basically different motivations for collaborating and forming networks (yellow boxes). On the left, the collaborations with other scientists is formed for procedural or epistemic reasons. Scientists share knowledge, know-how, resources, facilities and competences in order to create more than they would individually be able to. On the right, links are formed mostly for structural and financial reasons. Scientists and their institutions simply depend on money sources and on political support.

3.6.1 Conflicts of interest

Before going into detail of the different types of collaborations, we need to define what is understood as “conflict of interest”, since those conflicts arise in different forms in all these co-operations. A first definition writes like this:

An individual has a conflict of interest when he or she has personal, financial, professional, political, or other interests that are likely to undermine his or her ability to fulfil his or her primary professional, ethical, or legal obligations.

What can these “personal, financial, professional, political, or other interests” refer to in case of scientists? Personal interests might be opportunities of private and family life (e.g. moving to a particular location, helping one’s spouse getting an affiliation, grant or tenure position, taking revenge on an opponent or rival, etc.). Financial interests arise when a scientist has stocks of a company that he is collaborating with, therefore having an interest in the company’s success that is beyond his scientific interest. Professional interests are career opportunities, enlarging his research group, increasing influence and power within one’s institute or organisation. Political interests refer to ideologies, promotion of certain worldviews, impacting a certain legislative agenda, establishing one’s own political views and beliefs. When all these interests collide with those professional, ethical and legal obligations that we have framed by the virtues of good science conduct, then we speak of “conflicts of interest” (COI). Obviously, the abovementioned interests might corrupt objectivity, the call for disinterestedness, self-control, fairness, honesty, truthfulness – almost all the virtues we outlined. There is just one problem with this definition of COIs: A scientist with an COI might be so biased that he or she doesn’t even notice that there is a COI. Therefore, we can refine the definition:

An individual has an apparent conflict of interest when he or she has personal, financial, professional, political, or other interests that create the perception of a conflict to a reasonable outside observer.

Sometimes, third parties (outside observers) with a more neutral and unbiased stand can identify a COI much easier. In practice, this is applied when institutions create independent offices or panels that evaluate the chances for COIs of each and every project proposal and collaboration agreement that is signed within the institute or organisation. This protects the institution and its individual members (the scientists) from legal accusations and expensive lawsuits. Moreover, it is important to note that not only individuals but also entire institutions may have COIs, as expressed in a third definition:

An institution has a conflict of interest when financial, political, or other interests of the institution or its leaders are likely to undermine the institution’s ability to fulfil professional, legal, ethical, or social responsibilities.

A difference to the definition of COIs for individuals is that this one refers to undermining responsibilities rather than obligations. From this we can notice that, legally, individuals in professional roles are attributed obligations to do their job well while institutions are, legally, attributed professional and social responsibilities in that they pay respect to their institutional justification built on the proper fulfilment of their tasks.

3.6.2 Intellectual Property rights

A second important area of potential conflicts that arise especially in scope of collaborations and co-operations is the protection of intellectual property (IP) rights. We have already learned that data belongs to institutions, not to individual scientists. But who “owns” intellectual achievements such as research ideas, inventions, know-how, etc.? There are several legal forms of IP rights and their protection:

  • Trade secrets – These are mostly relevant for companies and corporations that try not to reveal the basis of their economic success. The most common example is the recipe of CocaCola. What is granted here is the right to keep a particular information secret, not the secret itself. Once the secret is revealed, for example by accident or carelessness, it is no longer a secret and nothing is left to be protected.
  • Trademarks – Registered brand names, product names, process labels, etc. are protected from being copied by others in the form of trademarks, often indicated by a small TM index as in BrandXYTM
  • Copyrights – Music, movies, any form of written work in print media, and computer software are protected by copyright regulations. When scientists publish their articles and essays, the words they write and the images they compile and design (photographs, diagrams, schemes, etc.) are protected by copyrights. A special form of copyright might be relevant for scientists when the outcome of the research is computer software (for example in IT sciences or theoretical physics/chemistry, etc.).
  • Patents – This is by far the most important and most debated form of IP protection in the field of science. Patents are issued for technical artefacts and processes and their underlying theoretical foundations, often referred to as “inventions”. These inventions must fulfil certain criteria to have a chance of being granted a patent:
    • novelty (it must be the first time that someone came up with this idea),
    • non-obviousness (it must be the result of a visionary idea),
    • usefulness (it must be good for something),
    • enabling description (it must be possible to describe its features in technical terms in order to reproduce its fabrication and application).

It has been discussed whether it is possible or not to get a patent for natural elements, e.g. chemical elements or DNA sequences. When geneticists succeeded in isolating DNA sequences that encode a specific protein, they applied for a patent, arguing that all the four abovementioned preconditions are fulfilled: it is new, it is not obvious (only after extensive research and with scientific knowledge), it is useful (for the directed synthesis of proteins), and it is perfectly scientifically and technically explainable and reproducible. However, the worry that an excessive patenting of natural elements, even when engineered and artificially exploited, may lead to a commercialisation of nature outweighed the technological arguments. Many expressed the worry of a “slippery slope”, a situation that occurs after one simple step is taken but in which a drift into an undesirable state can’t be avoided anymore.

3.6.3 Scientific collaborations

In addition to the set of scientific virtues compiled in 3.1, the topic of collaborations needs a few additional “secondary” virtues that play a crucial role for the success of the collaboration. These are:

  • Trust – Almost no relationship can flourish without trust, including professional interactions between colleagues, co-workers and fellow scientists. It might sound self-understanding, but in reality it is one of the most difficult states to establish and maintain. Yet, it often plays a determining role for the success and satisfaction of a collaboration.
  • Collegiality – As a specific form of trust, this point refers to treating each other according to the rules and codes of conduct of science: as colleagues on equal footing, with respect, mutual support and understanding of the other’s professional ties, duties and rights.
  • Accountability – For a successful and satisfying collaboration, it should be made clear and transparent from the beginning who is held accountable for what and at what time. Accountability is different from responsibility by referring more to the past (you are now accountable for what you decided, did or said in the past) while responsibility refers to the future (you are now responsible for the effects that your decisions, actions and statements might have in the future).

Even in the most common and “simplest” form of collaboration, that between fellow scientists in the same or similar area of science, conflicts can occur. First, there are reported cases of misunderstandings and miscommunications concerning the involved parties’ competences. When parts of the agreed project face difficulties because expectations on competences are not fulfilled or even intentionally falsely propagated, it is very unlucky and annoying for all. A similar problem comes up when tasks are not clearly and fairly delegated. When the role of an initiator of a collaborative project (the one with the idea) is marginalised and diminished by a bossy project leader, it is clearly a case of unfairness. Most quarrels are fought about publication issues: Who is author on a paper, how many papers shall be published, in which journal? Some projects also raise issues of intellectual property, especially those that yield in patents. Who of an collaborative team is eligible of how much of a share of a patent? More impacting on a collaborative relationship but less “manageable” are personal differences between collaborative. Certain personality traits are simply incompatible: introverted and extroverted people very often can’t work well together, same for very hard-working diligent and rather easy-going “relaxed” people. My former supervisor, for example, only agreed upon collaborations with colleagues he knows very well, personally and professionally. The risk of failing in a project due to insurmountable character differences is too high. A similar aspect is the difference of cultural customs. When the involved scientists have low intercultural competences and not enough respect for the customs and characteristics of the other’s cultural background, the project is likely to suffer from misunderstandings and low efficiency and productivity.

Many disagreements and misunderstandings can be solved before they occur when a clear and transparent collaboration contract and project plan is written and communicated before the project starts. In most cases, that is done, but especially in inner-university co-operations it is sometimes forgotten or not regarded as necessary.

What happens when we widen the scope from “normal” scientific collaborations to interdisciplinary ones? First, let’s clarify what we mean with “interdisciplinary”!


Here are a few selected exemplary scientific or academic disciplines. We defined the collaboration between disciplines in the same field (for example, “natural sciences”) as “normal” or “common” collaborations, for example when physicists, chemists, biologist work together, maybe with engineers who also think empirical-strategically (like scientists), or with related investigative sciences like medical sciences (but not “medicine”!). The other disciplines in this overview differ significantly from the “natural sciences” in their specific methodology and scientific approach, like the semi-empirical social sciences, or the normative sciences jurisprudence and philosophy. When scholars from these fields collaborate, we have three possibilities:

  1. Multi-disciplinary approaches – The collaborating disciplines work in parallel and each within its own margin of methodological self-understanding. Here, my example connects physics with social science and jurisprudence. The early approaches to study the societal and environmental impact of nanotechnology worked like this. Nanotechnologists (mostly physicists) explained what is the state-of-the-art of NT research, social scientists estimated social acceptance of NT, law experts evaluated how current regulations deal with new developments and how they might be modified. They all work in parallel (mostly independent from each other), write their part of a report and “glew it together” as their final report.
  2. Trans-disciplinary approaches – The competences of various disciplines are combined to one new meta-discipline that is beyond the original ones. The example I show here could be “neuroscience” as a combination of biology, psychology and philosophy (indeed, most neuroscientists are very eager in philosophical reasoning to justify their neuro-scientific worldview).
  3. Inter-disciplinary approaches – These want to explore what is “between” (inter) the disciplines. It is, therefore, attempted to create “synergies” by combining different competences and their strong points. Scientists of the collaborating disciplines look beyond the limits of their own expertise and elaborate on the matter together. I connected Chemistry, political science and philosophy in this example. This could be a project on the impact of new nano-scaled materials on the way that official agencies regulate the handling of them in order to ensure public health and safety (as done for the “REACH” catalogue, the new chemical registry in the EU). The chemist (nano-scientist) contributes the knowledge on physical and chemical properties of the compounds, the political scientist knows the existing policies and in which way they are insufficient for nano-compounds, the philosopher (ethicist) knows about demands for new definitions of “public health and safety” in terms of exposure to nano-materials. However, none of them can contribute anything meaningful to the debate when their insights are not informed by the others. Interdisciplinarity is characterised by mutual exchange and learning. Working in parallel (as in multidisciplinarity) is not efficient.

You can imagine that interdisciplinary collaborations face some procedural and methodological difficulties. First of all, there are certain “language problems”. People – even though speaking the same mother tongue – might use certain technical terms like risk or law in different ways according to the common meaning that it has within their discipline’s standard vocabulary. Then, there is often a lack of understanding for other scientific disciplines’ approaches to science. Empirical scientists (mostly natural sciences) think that normative sciences and social sciences are just “bla bla”, whereas semi-empirical and normative scientists take the “hard sciences” as cold and soulless data-generation when not embedded into orientational knowledge. Here, the dialectical acceptance and respect between researchers from different disciplines is of crucial importance for fruitful collaboration. The abovementioned conflicts can occur also here: Publication issues, authorship, IP, receiving credit in general. The claim that all participants are held accountable for the entire presented or published work, not only one’s own contribution, is very important! The virtue of fairness asks researchers to represent collaborators’ work correctly as such, including labelling it as their work and not as one’s own. Conflicting interests can be the purpose of the study results: Is it to serve as input for a political agency or office, or merely as an academic-intellectual contribution to advance knowledge? Priorities and expectations should be clearly communicated before the collaboration starts, and – if possible – written down in a binding project proposal and agreement.

3.6.4 Science and Politics

The role of politics for science is mostly that of funding it. Public universities receive tax money (at least in Germany) to fulfil their tasks of doing research and educating students in academic and scientific thinking and practice. However, in times of competing financial demands and interests among all kinds of social spheres, universities have to struggle for getting their share of public budget. Legislations cut the resources for university, forcing them to explore new channels (for example, industrial co-operations, see next section), or by channelling the money into specific innovation-oriented research and development programs, for example the National Nanotechnology Initiatives that many countries run. In this way, politics has influence on the particular research agenda (the decision of a research institute on what kind of research to do). Ideally, however, the political organs represent the interests and expectations of the society, so that it has an important control function for the public acceptance of science. In the other direction, science also plays a role for politics. Many political decisions are informed by knowledge that is generated by scientific means. Moreover, scientific and technological research enables innovation in form of new technologies, so that the country benefits from increased economic competitiveness and profit. At the same time, based on scientific insights, developments can be more sustainable for the society and the environment.

Some perceive it as a problem that with the current trends of funding – away from “general” funding of universities towards more directed financing of special research agendas – there will be less and less “basic research” and more and more “applied research”. This limits academic freedom and the chance for revolutionary break-throughs since progress becomes predictable and confined to short-sighted margins. At the same time, it causes a situation of increased pressure and stress for scientists. Imagine the battery example again: The scientists – professors, senior researchers, postdocs, PhD students, etc. – always have in the back of their head that they “have to be successful”. The prize for the generous funding of their research is a very high expectation on a particular output. “It doesn’t work.” is an inacceptable conclusion. Maybe, it even supports and facilitates fraud and misconduct. Moreover, it creates a delicate financial dependence of research institutes, especially at universities. Take, for example, Taiwan’s National Nanotechnology Initiative: With a huge volume of funding (177 billion NT$), more than 25 “nanoscience centers” opened at universities all over the island, applying for money from that pot. After 10 years, the NNI was closed down and substituted by new initiatives (now: energy). These nanoscience centers, having employees and researchers working in them, have to explore new sources of funding in order to continue their work, or they have to close, or they have to re-orient themselves (maybe towards “energy”-research).

3.6.5 Science and Industry

It is estimated that 80% of the financial resources for research come from the private sector (companies and corporations). Many research institutes can carry out their scientific work only with this financial boosts while public funding is just sufficient to keep up the educational work. Conflicts of interests are very likely! This table shows the differences between academic and industrial research interest:

Academia Industry
Main goal advance human knowledge,

educate students,

conduct public service

maximise profits,

produce goods and services,

financial growth and stability

Data and idea dissipation openness, free exchange secrecy to protect confidential business information and proprietary interests
Research ideals academic freedom, free speech, free thought,

honesty and objectivity

research for specific purposes, restrictions on public communication,

enhancing market share, ensuring quality of goods

knowledge for its own sake utilisation for the sake of profit or practical goals
competition no direct competition free market competition, must produce high quality, invest wisely, be effective and efficient
obligations to students, faculty, staff, alumni, government, community stockholders, customers, employees, government, community.

In terms of IP rights, conflicts of interests mostly arise from scientists goal to increase their fame and merits by publications, whereas industrial partners insist on patents which often means that publications have to be held back or even are tried to be withheld completely. In some cases, companies regard achievements as trade secrets, so that scientists are limited in their freedom to communicate their insights. Financial COIs occur when scientists have stocks of the companies that they collaborate with, creating potential biases in their conduct of research. As mentioned in 3.6.2, some institutions implemented offices that check such COIs and eventually intervene in collaboration plans since COIs of one of their co-workers have the potential to damage the institution’s reputation or even cause legal problems. Although research bias is often deliberate, it may also operate at a subconscious level. People may not be aware of how financial or other interests are impacting their judgments and decisions. Studies have shown that financial or other interests can exert subconscious influences on thought processes. Additionally, even small interests can have an effect. People can be influenced by small gifts and small  sums of money. Pharmaceutical companies give small gifts, such as pens, notepads, and free lunches, because they are trying to influence physicians’ behaviors. Physicians often deny that they could be influenced by something as small as a pen, but studies indicate otherwise.

A similar tension as from directed political funding is created also by industrial funding. As corporate funds continue to flow into a university, it may lose its commitment to basic research and knowledge for its own sake and may become more interested in applications and profits. The curriculum can also become transformed from one that emphasizes education in critical thinking and the liberal arts to one that emphasizes the training of students for careers in business, industry, or the professions. Talented faculty who might normally be involved in teaching may be encouraged to conduct research so the university can increase its revenues from contracts and grants. Corporate money can transform an academic institution into a private laboratory and technical training school.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s