Beyond Expertise: One Person's Science, Another Person's Policy


This case focuses on a scientist's results on the oxidation and reduction reactions of the heavy metal jekylhydium in water and soil which have been published in a series of papers in reputable, peer-reviewed journals and who has been asked to draft regulations by The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who is concerned about the toxicity and potential for human exposure.


Part 1

Dr. Debra Reams works in the field of environmental chemistry and focuses on the oxidation and reduction reactions of the heavy metal jekylhydium in water and soil. Jeckylhydium is used in many industrial processes and is known to exist in nature primarily in two oxidation states. The oxidized form is extremely toxic; the reduced form is harmless. Reams was the first person to clearly demonstrate that interconversion between the oxidized and reduced forms can occur in the presence of certain compounds found naturally in some soils and sediments. Reams loves basic research and has been successful in obtaining support, often prefacing her proposed laboratory research with a discussion of the industrial significance of jekylhydium and how knowledge about the environmental behavior of jekylhydium potentially may be used in determining exposure risk and setting regulatory limits. Reams's results have been published in a series of papers in reputable, peer-reviewed journals.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is concerned about the toxicity and potential for human exposure to jekylhydium, which has been detected in many Superfund sites. The Agency is alarmed by news of the possibility of transformation from the less toxic to the more toxic form and asks Reams to help rewrite the regulatory limits for jekylhydium in soils and water based on her findings. She declines the opportunity. She explains that drafting regulations is beyond the scope of her data and her expertise and that she could not predict with confidence the extent of the oxidation reaction in diverse environmental conditions.

The EPA amends the current regulatory limits in soils and water and lowers the allowable limits for the total concentration of jekylhydium, justifying the change by reference to Reams's findings. This move raises the concern of representatives from industries that produce and discharge the nontoxic, reduced form of jekylhydium in their waste products. It also disturbs Reams, who feels that her research results were over-simplified and over-generalized when applied to policy/regulatory limits for jekylhydium.

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Discussion Questions

1. Was Reams wise to refuse to move beyond her expertise as a provider of new knowledge?

2. If a scientist is conducting basic research in an applied field, does that change how the results should be presented?

3. Is scientific discovery accompanied by the responsibility to contribute to the use and application of that discovery?

4. Does a scientist have the right or capacity to determine how scientific knowledge is applied?

5. Would it matter if Reams were a senior scientist? a beginning researcher whose discovery was based on her dissertation work?

6. What difference does the source of funding make to what is expected of Reams?

Part 2

Consider a scenario in which Reams agrees to participate in the regulatory decision-making process. Her input is well received, but the final regulatory decision appears to ignore the complexity of the chemistry for the sake of expedient regulations -- a situation that could result in over-regulation and unnecessary clean-up expense.

Discussion Question

7. What recourse does Reams have? Should she follow up with the EPA and impress upon the regulators that they are distorting and oversimplifying complex issues?

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Used with permission of Association for Practical and Professional Ethics. Case drawn from Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume Two, Brian Schrag, Ed., February 1998.

. . Beyond Expertise: One Person's Science, Another Person's Policy. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

Given the high level of toxicity of the oxidized form of jeckylhydium and its many industrial uses, it should not surprise Dr. Reams that the EPA is concerned about appropriate levels of human exposure to this heavy metal. Also, since her published research focuses on oxidation and reduction reactions of jekyllhydium, she should not be surprised that the EPA would seek her assistance in amending current regulatory limits.

It seems that, as an environmental chemist, Reams should at least be willing to meet with EPA officials to discuss their concerns. The case does not indicate whether Reams believes that there are others who are more expert than she in jekylhydium research. If she does believe that, then perhaps she could decline the EPA's request by referring the agency to someone more expert. However, if she believes her expertise matches or exceeds that of others, a strong case can be made for concluding that she should agree to advise the EPA. That does not necessarily mean that she should recommend that allowable limits for the total concentration of jekyllhydium be lowered. That is precisely the issue under consideration by the EPA. In effect, by refusing to offer her expertise to the EPA, she is leaving matters in the hands of those who know less than she does about an important area of public health.

Perhaps Reams was reasoning this way: "Our present state of knowledge about safe levels of exposure to jekyllhydium is insufficient to warrant any regulatory changes at this time. Therefore, I do not wish to involve myself in the EPA's attempt to rewrite the regulations." If so, it seems that she should have advised the EPA accordingly. Instead, she simply told the EPA that its task was "beyond the scope of her data and her expertise," that she could not make confident predictions.

In assessing her reluctance to get involved with the EPA, Reams might have asked herself this question: "What if all jekyllhydium researchers refuse to assist the EPA?" Then, obviously, the EPA would act without having access to anything but the published results of their research, and without the advantage of any of these researchers helping them interpret the significance of that research. Is Reams, as an environmental chemist, willing to accept that outcome? If she is not, and if she believes her expertise matches or exceeds that of others, then it seems that she should be willing to assist the EPA. She might not be comfortable being cast into the role of adviser to a policy-making agency, but neither should she be comfortable leaving matters totally in the hands of nonexperts.

Reams's rationale for declining the EPA's invitation raises important questions about standards of acceptable risk. She says she cannot confidently predict the extent of the oxidation reaction in diverse environmental conditions. Does that mean that acceptable concentration levels should not be lowered unless one can make confident predictions? That is the apparent stance taken in the asbestos industry in the early 1920s, and sustained for decades while workers were exposed to high levels of harmful asbestos fibers. The problem with this position was that asbestosis and related forms of lung cancer take 20 or 30 years to develop. Waiting for compelling evidence of the harmful effects of exposure was, in that case, fatal. Similarly, delayed response to the accidental mixing of cattle feed and fire retardant in Michigan in the mid 1970s resulted in enormous costs to farmers and widespread consumer fears of meat contamination.

These two examples do not warrant an alarmist response to risks of toxicity. But they do raise fundamental questions about the rationality of waiting to act until highly confident levels of predictability are obtained.(1)  In areas where certainty is unobtainable but the stakes are high if things do go badly, both policy makers and their advisers may need to risk erring in the direction of caution.

Finally, we are not told anything about Reams's place of employment. If she works in private industry, she may fear that she will undermine her employer by assisting the EPA. But that assumes that she will be advising the EPA to lower the acceptable level of concentration of jekyllhydium. She apparently is convinced that the evidence is insufficient to warrant that step. It is not clear why her employer would be upset if that were the advice given to the EPA. On the other hand, should Reams become convinced that the regulations should be changed, that is what she should advise the EPA. Furthermore, as our recent history of litigation suggests, it may be in the interests of the industry she represents to change its practices as well. In any case, Reams needs to consider not only her obligations to her employee, but also to the public at large.

If Reams is a university researcher, then there is even less reason for her to be reluctant to share her expertise with the EPA, as her obligations to public health and welfare are more direct. Again, that is not to prejudge the substance of her recommendations. It is only to affirm that one of higher education's functions is to serve the public interest, particularly in areas of public health where it may have expertise that others lack.

As it turns out, the EPA used Reams's expertise through her publications. However, Reams is concerned that her work was misused. The antidote, it seems, would have been for her to be there to assist the EPA in properly understanding her work.

An alternative scenario has Reams agreeing to work with the EPA, but her work is still misapplied. Here there is good reason for Reams to continue working with the EPA, trying to help the agency understand the greater complexity of the relevant chemistry. Precisely because of this complexity, her continuing research may reveal further evidence that will assist the EPA in its regulatory functions.

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  • (1)Two good sources in this difficult area are Carl F. Cranor, Regulating Toxic Substances (New York: Oxford Press, 1993) and Wade L. Robison, Decisions of Doubt (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1994).

Author: Michael Pritchard, Western Michigan University.

Reams is faced with the decision of whether or not to participate in a regulatory decision-making process. In Part 1, she is invited to participate but refuses to move beyond her role as researcher. However, she is drawn into the controversy because 1) the regulatory decisions are justified based on her research and 2) she is dissatisfied with the final outcome of the decision and feels that the new regulations do not accurately represent her experimental results.

It is important to ask why Reams is wary of stepping outside of her role as researcher. This question attempts to probe ideas about the perceived role of a scientist. She claims that her knowledge is limited and insufficient for the nature of the decision required. Yet, her knowledge of the chemistry of jeckylhydium is likely to be greater than that of any of the EPA's decision makers. Perhaps she is reacting to the idea that it is unprofessional or even unethical to be both a provider of knowledge and an advocate of how to apply it, especially in a situation where one cannot predict with certainty the outcome of various hypothetical scenarios. While science is fundamentally descriptive and necessary in order to define the ethical issues, ethics is prescriptive (Brown, 1987). To engage politically is to exert power, while the objective of scientific research is to pursue knowledge or truth. As a provider of descriptive knowledge, Reams has met her responsibilities as well as may be expected in her role as researcher.

Does Reams have a responsibility to represent her experimental work as it applies to regulatory problems? Her wariness about participation in drafting regulations may stem from the idea that the strength of scientific inquiry comes from its objectivity and a "value-free" context. As a scientist, Reams is trained to apply strict standards for drawing inferences from facts. However, regulatory and public policy decisions often require decision making without the luxury of complete or conclusive data. If a researcher takes a political stand on a scientifically based issue, there may be the appearance of compromised objectivity. And for a scientist, objectivity is closely related to integrity. Yet Reams is studying the fundamental behavior of a metal that has economic and environmental impacts. In fact, the importance of jeckylhydium may be the reason for the availability of funding for the research. Her interest in this metal is not entirely distinct from its significance.

Who is Reams working for? If her research is funded by governmental agencies then perhaps she does have responsibility to participate in solving the broader regulatory problem. She has succeeded in obtaining research support by suggesting that results from her research may be used to address problems of jeckylhydium pollution and remediation strategies. Her experimental work is implicitly applied research even if it is not explicitly defined as such. In a sense, her discovery of jeckylhydium transformations pushed her basic research efforts into the context of applied research because of the urgency for application. Reams may have to step back and ask a more philosophical question, i.e., who is this science for? If she does scientific research with the hope and intent of making some kind of social contribution, then perhaps she should honor that desire and make a commitment to contributing at the policy level.

In Part 2, Reams agrees to participate in the regulatory decision-making process, but despite her input in the process, she is not satisfied with the results. She is not happy with the final decision to regulate total jeckylhydium in an all or nothing fashion. Dotterer (1929) drew a distinction between a "world-view" and a "life-view," which makes a nice analogy for the use of scientific information in making regulatory policy for jeckylhydium. He defined "world-view" as a description of the facts of a situation and "life-view" or "life-plan" as a blueprint or a plan of action. He argued that the best chance for an effective or successful life-plan comes from adherence to the most accurate world-view. These ideas are metaphors for science and for the application of science to policy. Reams is dissatisfied with the life-plan or regulatory policy for jeckylhydium because the world-view or scientific foundation is based on simplistic assumptions and incomplete knowledge. In the realm of scientific research, generalizations and simplifications are inaccuracies that weaken the foundations of understanding. However, is that also true when science is incorporated into policy? Is simplification necessarily a form of error? And since the regulations are motivated by the need to reduce risk to innocent people, is a less stringent standard appropriate?

According to Brown (1987), research analysts tend to look at problems from within their own discipline. For example, those who study nuclear power look at risk of failure, not at issues of proliferation, theft, sabotage, routine emission, etc. It is important to ask whether Reams is limited by thinking solely from within the confines of her discipline. She may not be seeing the other factors that press into the decision calculus. On the other hand, Reams may be witnessing a compromise of scientific integrity that will ultimately weaken the life-plan of the regulatory policy itself.

Reams has shared her knowledge as a participant in the policy forum, but she remains dissatisfied with the outcome. She is a jeckylhydium expert, a citizen, and a scientist upholding the values of "good science." And now she decide whether to take further action to promote what she sees as more accurate and appropriate use of her research. Reams's motives would be questionable if insisting on rigorous standards of "good science" resulted in policy that did not serve to protect innocent people from risk. However, it appears that she is trying to optimize both good science and good policy -- not one or the other. Perhaps this situation is drawing her into a new role as "applied scientist." That is a significant departure from basic research and probably more akin to engineering.


  • Brown, D. A. "Ethics, Science, and Environmental Regulation." Environmental Ethics 9 (1987): 331-350.
  • Dotterer, R. H. Philosophy By Way of the Sciences. New York: MacMillan, 1929.