The Federal Scientist: Multiple Roles and Moral Issues


This scenario highlights potential dilemmas encountered by postdoctoral fellows in a research setting. This scenario looks at the multiple roles a scientist must play and how it can affect decision making.


Alice Campbell is an environmental geologist employed by the Toxic Waste Disposal Administration, a federal agency. She is responsible for making recommendations on funding research and directing geologic investigations to determine the safety of sites for toxic waste disposal. Because these materials remain toxic for extremely long periods of time, geologic conditions at potential disposal sites must be known with sufficient certainty to allow decisions to be made regarding siting and construction of disposal facilities. However, because of the long time periods and the nature of the hazardous materials involved, many decisions are made in spite of uncertainty about the performance of the sites and the application of new, unproven technology.

Decisions to site waste facilities are extremely litigious and controversial. These decisions are made in a politically sensitive environment and are scrutinized by the public and the media. Scientists who work in this area are often called to testify in court proceedings and must be able to defend their data collection methods, notes, methods, processes, and decisions in an open court of law.

A Day in the Life of a Federal Scientist

10 a.m. - Funding Research. One of Alice's responsibilities is to review technical reports and recommend further agency action based on the results of the reports. Due to the nature of the questions regarding the safety of the disposal site, traditional geologic methods do not always provide decision makers with adequate information nor provide sufficient demonstrations of compliance with regulations governing public health and safety. A new method for determining the stability of geologic formations has been developed by Dr. von Wegner, a world-renowned senior geochemist at a national laboratory. The method, Thermal Oxygenation Xenolith (TOX) uses heat sensors suspended from helicopters to determine the presence of active faults based on residual thermal characteristics from fault friction.

Von Wegner is an articulate and convincing salesman for his new method, and the national laboratory where he works has an excellent reputation; he is able to convince the management board of Toxic Waste Disposal Administration to use the new method. Federal funding is provided to the geochemist for a report on the use of TOX at the proposed disposal site to determine whether any faults exist that would make the site unsafe for waste disposal. Von Wegner's TOX report shows that no significant faults exist on or near the site that could impact waste isolation.

During her review of the report, Alice discovers that TOX is not only new, but the validity of its application to environmental problems is contested within the geochemical community, due to calibration problems from biological contributions to the thermal signature of rocks. After further investigation and discussion with her professional colleagues, Alice learns that a professional rivalry exists between von Wegner and other experts in this area, who are proponents of an alternative method for locating faults.

Discussion Questions

1. What are the moral issues raised by this scenario?

2. Did von Wegner misrepresent his method? Did he deceive Alice and the federal agency? Should Dr. von Wegner have indicated the drawbacks of his new method?

3. Should the agency have researched the method more thoroughly before granting funding?

4. Is the report adequate as a basis for demonstrating compliance with regulations regarding public health and safety? Should the information be trusted, or should it be compared with the findings of another method? Would it make a difference if the report showed the site to be unsafe?

5. How should Alice proceed?

6. How does scientific conflict impact decision making?

Noon - Public Perceptions of Risk. At lunch, Alice reads an article in the local newspaper about the latest in a series of minor tremors at the site. She recalls that reports on the potential for seismic activity at the site determined a probability greater than 1 in 10,000 that an earthquake of 7.0 or greater on the Richter scale would occur in the next 1000 years. Therefore, the site met the established regulatory requirements for designation as a suitable site for waste disposal. However, the newspaper quotes a "knowledgeable source" from an environmental group, who asserts that the most recent tremor is evidence that the potential for earthquakes in the vicinity of the waste disposal site make it unsafe. This group has been a vocal opponent to the disposal program Alice is working on. As a geologist, Alice knows that earthquakes occur almost everywhere, including the waste site, and that seismic investigations have shown that the site is safe.

Discussion Questions

7. Does Alice have a responsibility to act in this situation?

8. Are there moral issues in the use of science for advocacy or political purposes?

9. How safe is safe? Does the federal agency have a responsibility to explain the potential hazards of this site in terms the public can understand?

6 p.m. - Conflict of Interest. In addition to her federal job, Alice has begun to take graduate classes at Western Gambling State University, but she has not chosen a research topic or an academic adviser. Early in the semester, the professor teaching Alice's class, Dr. Sharpo, discusses a research proposal he has developed to use the microbe Toxiconsumus, which may have the ability to chemically neutralize toxic waste. Alice is excited by the topic and considers approaching Dr. Sharpo to discuss this topic as the subject of her dissertation research.

8 a.m. The Next Day. Alice is surprised to learn that Dr. Sharpo has submitted a proposal to the federal agency where Alice works. He is applying for funding to assess the utility of using the microbe on the toxic waste disposal program. Alice's supervisor asks her to serve on a five-person team to review the university's proposal and provide a recommendation on whether the research should be funded. If use of the microbe proves feasible, Alice could use this topic for her dissertation.

Discussion Questions

10. What ethical issues does this scenario raise? Should Alice review the proposal?

11. Under what conditions would conflicts of interest or issues of independence arise in relation to government-sponsored scientific research?


Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 4, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2000.

. . The Federal Scientist: Multiple Roles and Moral Issues. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

This case presents three distinct situations, all having to do with research on and administration of the disposal of toxic wastes. The situations are separable in the sense that any one could arise (and would be difficult to resolve) independent of any other. Comparable situations arise in dealing with other kinds of research and decision making, but in this case the dilemmas are made all that more difficult because of the risks posed by toxic wastes and because of the degree of uncertainty about risks of this kind. I will analyze two of the situations by describing the core issue and then identify reasonable interpretations of the responsibilities of Alice, the central decision maker in this case.

The first situation presents Alice's dilemma in reviewing technical reports and recommending action based on this review. The task involves making judgments about the promise of lines of research or the potential reliability of new methodologies. This is a daunting challenge in itself because it implicitly involves uncertainty; that is, judgments have to be made to create evidence and experience before they exist (or exist to a high degree). The task is all that more difficult in this case because it involves determining the risks of toxic waste sites, where errors in judgment can have catastrophic effects. So, Alice has a tough job.

Dr. von Wegner has come up with a new methodology, and he presents it to Alice as an extremely viable methodology. Alice later finds, however, that the validity of the methodology is contested. The question is raised as to whether von Wegner had a responsibility to tell Alice about the controversy over his methodology.

Two major issues are apparent here. One is the question of how Alice, or anyone in a situation like hers, should proceed when faced with controversy as well as uncertainty about new research and research techniques. The second question has to do with practices in science when it comes to research evaluation: How should researchers' responsibilities in reporting on their research be defined? Should they be expected to present their research in the best possible light? Or should they be expected to disclose any controversy or uncertainty surrounding their research?

I will make some suggestions on how to think about these questions. On the first question, it seems clear that Alice ultimately will have to use her judgment. Because of the uncertainty involved, a clear right answer is not going to emerge. Her best strategy is to gather as much information as she can, from von Wegner, as well as his critics. In the end, she will just have to make a tough call. Perhaps what is most important here is that she be able to explain to others why she has made the judgment she makes. Good reasons will help her defend her judgment whether she recommends funding for further development of the methodology and it turns out to be unusable or she does not fund the research and it turns out to be the best methodology produced - by other funding agencies.

On the second question, it seems most important that a policy be adopted so that all parties know what to expect and can determine when standards have been violated. My hunch is that it is better (for science and the public) to set a standard of scientists representing their research in the best possible light and not expecting them to disclose controversy. Scientists are less likely than others to do a good job of explaining controversy over their work.

Moreover, it seems better to have the expectation that someone in Alice's position should seek the advice of others before embracing a methodology presented by its originator. This issue is precisely why journals and funding agencies use a system of peer review when making decisions about what to publish or fund. To be sure, the process may eliminate some research that would have been beneficial, but in the long run more good will come.

I am not going to comment on the second situation described in this case. The occurrence of a tremor and publication of new estimations of the risks of a potential site exacerbate the difficulty of the situation. They make Alice's decision more difficult, but they do not add a new element.

The third part of the case seems to pose a complex conflict of interest. Alice has two roles. Her job as an employee of the federal government requires her to review research and methodologies for toxic waste disposal. Implicitly this responsibility entails making judgments that are in the best interest of the United States. As a graduate student enrolled in a university, Alice has another role. In her role as a student, she is expected to seek the best education she can get, to seek the good opinion of her teachers and to seek good grades. While the federal government may benefit from Alice getting a graduate education, when she goes to school she acts for herself. Her role as a student and her role as an employee have distinct responsibilities and values.

Initially the two roles do not conflict, and Alice can continue to keep them separate. However, if Alice decides to work with Dr. Sharpo on her dissertation, then Alice should not evaluate Sharpo's proposal for funding from her agency. Similarly, if she decides to evaluate Sharpo's proposal for funding, then she should not chose him for a dissertation adviser. Either way, she will appear to be acting/judging with a conflict of interest. If Sharpo is Alice's dissertation adviser, than he is expected to make judgments about Alice on the basis of her work as a graduate student. However, if he knows that she has recommended his grant, he may feel grateful to her and he may be reluctant to evaluate her harshly for fear of jeopardizing future funding. Similarly, if Alice chooses Sharpo as her adviser, her judgment about funding of his proposal may appear to be tainted. She is supposed to make such judgments with an eye to the best interests of her agency (and ultimately the United States), but in her role as student, she will want to please Sharpo. Indeed, as his graduate student, she could even be offered an assistantship under the grant.

I admit this conclusion is disturbing because Alice's desire to work with Sharpo and her desire to fund his proposal may arise from the same fair appraisal of the potential of his research. Because she thinks the research is so promising, she wants to work with him and fund his research. The problem is that she has two roles and there is no way to be sure that the circumstances of one role will not inappropriately influence her judgment in the other role.

Alice should either remove herself from the decision about Sharpo's proposal or she should stop working with him at the university.

Author: Deborah G. Johnson, Georgia Institute of Technology.

This case raises several issues regarding the multiple, complex, and often competing, roles a scientist must play. In addition to responsibility to herself and her career in science, Alice is also responsible for protecting public health and safety in her role as an environmental geologist employed by the Toxic Waste Disposal Administration. As a student, Alice has taken on an additional role, which poses a potential conflict of interest with her job. We will examine each of these responsibilities in turn as we evaluate the ethical questions raised during a typical day in the life of a federal scientist.

Funding Research

Alice's first ethical problem arises from her position as a federal employee. Acting as an agent of the federal government, Alice must evaluate the adequacy of research proposals to answer questions about the safety of a potential toxic waste disposal site. In conducting research on which to base recommendations to protect public health, scientists working in environmental science are faced with difficult decisions. For example, Alice's recommendations could expose future generations to potentially disastrous environmental consequences. In order to make these recommendations, scientists and engineers are being asked to predict the behavior of natural and engineered systems many generations in the future, which raises ethical as well as technical issues. In fact, the social ramifications of application of technology often are more difficult to solve than the technical conundrums. However, Alice knows that decisions on these societal issues must be based on sound science. The results of this scientific research will be used as input to the decision to site a toxic waste site or abandon the site. In either case, the decision will be litigious and controversial.

Decisions on what research to fund and how to use research data are difficult, but they must be based on honest communication on all aspects of scientific technique and application. As funding becomes more difficult to obtain, researchers are under more pressure to oversell their expertise and techniques. The Toxic Waste Disposal Administration is paying Alice and von Wegner for their professional judgment. In order to be able to rely on their judgment, the agency must have confidence in the results of the research, which includes trust in the honesty in the descriptions of the method, its applications and limitations, and the ultimate validity of the results obtained from the method. If any one of these steps is at issue, the chain of confidence in the scientific credibility of the process is lost. Professional scientists and engineers have unique knowledge, skills, and expertise; therefore, their judgment is sought and believed.C. E. Harris, M. S. Pritchard and M. J. Rabin, Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1995), p. 211. Although Alice is also a geologist, as a geochemist, von Wegner has specialized knowledge of a highly specialized method in geochemistry. Von Wegner is a senior principal investigator, a well-established scientist with a strong reputation; Alice is working in a federal bureaucracy, reviewing research proposals. Of course, Alice must be competent and able to understand the general application of the method in order to recommend funding based on that determination; however, von Wegner also has a responsibility to candidly share the potential shortcomings or controversies surrounding his method. "The progress of science as a whole depends on the communication and integration of individual specialized results."Sigma Xi, Honor in Science (Research Triangle Park, N. C.: Sigma Xi, 1991), p. 7. Independent of the results of the research regarding the safety of the site, von Wegner should have indicated the drawbacks of his new method.

Public Perception of Risk

The second ethical conundrum that confronts Alice is the role of the media in shaping public opinion and the use of science to further a political agenda (in this case, an environmental group that opposes toxic waste siting and uses science to justify that opposition). In our complex technological society, the public relies on scientists to give us objective facts about risk. The media play a critical role in communicating these facts to us. Scientists' responsibility goes beyond the development of theory and the correct use of technique; they also have a responsibility to explain the results and implications of their research to the public. As Harris, Pritchard and Rabins state, "The doctrine of informed consent implies that engineers have a responsibility to promote the conditions in which individuals can give informed consent to risks they encounter as a result of technology. They must do what they can to ensure that the public understands the risks associated with technology and can consent to those risks, especially when they are unusual."Harris, Pritchard and Rabins, Engineering Ethics, p. 244.

Although we are increasingly skeptical about the veracity of information we get from the media, the fact remains that they are our primary source of information. Under pressure to sell papers and advertising time, our national media have become more and more focused on controversy, complex applications, and perceived risks from science. Although our modern lives are actually much safer than they were 50 years ago, the complexity of this technology means that life is no longer simple.D. R. Williams, What is Safe? The Risks of Living in a Nuclear Age (Cambridge, Unite Kingdom: The Royal Society of Chemistry, 1998), p. 4. Adding to the complex misinformation that the public must interpret are special interest groups and lobbyists who may use partial truths or modify reports to garner support, as in this case, the environmental group that manipulates estimates of the risk of earthquakes in order to stop the toxic waste site. Engineers and scientists must recognize that the results of their work can be misused by advocates for political agendas. We have a moral obligation to inform the public, and Alice, working through correct channels at her agency, has the responsibility to explain the risks from seismic activity on the toxic waste site in an objective, clear, and understandable way.

Conflict of Interest

Alice's final ethical quandary concerns a potential conflict of interest between her federal job and her role as a student at the university. In general, these two roles would not result in conflict; however, Alice has been asked to review a research proposal from a professor at the university that is directly related to her responsibilities at the agency. Also, the research topic is closely related to Alice's area of academic interest and could form the subject for her dissertation research. The ethical dilemma exits because Alice's interests may be in conflict: as a federal scientist, she could recommend funding that would benefit her at the university. Scientists are expected to render impartial professional judgements based on a critical objective review of the evidence;Jeffrey Kovac, The Ethical Chemist: Case Studies in Scientific Ethics, Case B-4A, rev. ed. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1995). can Alice's judgment be objective if she can gain from her recommendations? Although Alice may be able to provide an objective, impartial review and recommendations based on science and not personal gain, her professional judgment may be biased due to the conflict. Even the appearance of a conflict can be deleterious to science. An added element of conflict is the potential for the successful application of the bacterium to affect the need for a toxic waste site.

Kovac discusses three ways to avoid conflicts of interests: 1) to avoid them; 2) to divest yourself of the external influence; and 3) to publicly reveal the influences.Ibid. Alice would not have to quit her job at the Toxic Waste Disposal Administration or stop taking classes at the university in order to avoid the conflict of interest; less drastic approaches would allow Alice to remain employed and pursue her academic interests. Alice should notify her supervisor and Professor Sharpo of the conflict of interest, and recuse herself from reviewing the university's proposal.​​​