Richard's Radioactive Risk


This case highlights potential dilemmas encountered by postdoctoral fellows in a research setting, specifically in a lab where conflict between a researcher and lab tech is not monitored by the head of the lab.


Paul is an experienced technician working in Dr. Monson's laboratory. Over the past seven years, he has become Monson's close friend and confidant. Recently, Monson assumed additional administrative responsibilities within the department. Knowing that his time in the laboratory would be decreased, Monson privately asked Paul to begin to manage the laboratory's daily operations.

Lisa joined Monson's laboratory two years ago and is the only post-graduate researcher in the laboratory. Before Paul received his new assignment, Lisa and Paul worked very well together; however, after Lisa heard third-hand about Paul's new position of authority, she felt overlooked and offended. Lisa felt that because she has more formal education than Paul, she should have been asked to manage the laboratory.

Lisa concluded that discussing her feelings with Monson would negatively affect her future career options, so she decided not to speak with Monson. Lisa and Paul maintained a professional relationship for a short while; however, soon their interactions began to sour. Paul sensed Lisa's resentment as a challenge to his position in the laboratory and began to exert greater authority over the lab equipment. Lisa responded by leaving the equipment dirty after using it. Over time, Lisa and Paul have stopped talking to each other and avoided interacting whenever possible. Nevertheless, when Monson is around, they try to put on a convincing facade of professional respect.

Richard is an undergraduate working in Monson's laboratory with Lisa. He has watched the development of the negative relationship between Paul and Lisa. Lisa has even confided in Richard that she believes that Paul is tampering with some of her experiments to make her look bad. To avoid the rapidly escalating conflict in the laboratory, Richard quietly and quickly performs his assigned duties each day and then leaves as early as possible. As time passes, the situation dramatically worsens.

The crucial incident

One evening Lisa asks Richard to stay a bit late and finish an incubation step in a protocol. He agrees, and Lisa goes home. Paul is still in the laboratory working, but he is unaware that Richard is there too. Richard's cubicle is positioned so that he can easily see Paul's bench and Lisa's cubicle. Paul puts on some gloves and begins to work at his lab bench. Richard has an important exam the next day, so he begins to study at his cubicle. Paul is still unaware that Richard is in the laboratory. After studying for a few minutes, Richard notices that Paul is doing something in Lisa's cubicle space. Richard cannot directly see what Paul is doing. Soon, Paul emerges from Lisa's cubicle. Richard sees that Paul is carefully holding a vial, which he sets on his bench; he cautiously discards his gloves and walks out of the lab.

Richard curiously goes to see what was in the vial. The vial is a well-marked radioactive container. He feels very uneasy. Before Paul returns to the laboratory, Richard quickly finishes the incubation and goes home.

Discussion Questions

  1. What should Richard do?
  2. What responsibility did Richard have to inform Lisa about his observation?
  3. What are the risks Richard assumes and ethical conflicts he faces in informing or not informing Lisa?

After much thought and deliberation, Richard calls Lisa at home and explains what he saw. Lisa thanks him for alerting her. Lisa arrives at the lab early the next day and tests her cubicle for the presence of any radioactive residues. Lisa finds that her chair may be contaminated. Lisa contacts the Office of Laboratory Safety (OLS). An OLS worker comes to the lab and confirms that Lisa's chair is contaminated with some sort of radioactive compound. Lisa notifies Monson about the situation. After speaking with Monson, Paul confesses to putting the radioactive substance on Lisa's chair.

Discussion Questions

  1. What were the proper and improper actions of Lisa, Paul, Richard, Monson and the institution?
  2. Was Paul the only person who should have accepted responsibility?
  3. Although this case may seem overly dramatic and even extreme, the fact that it did occur (reported here with minor interpretational modifications) poignantly demonstrates the powerful role of interpersonal relationship within a working context. How could this incident have been avoided?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 6, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2002.

. . Richard's Radioactive Risk. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

This case should trigger a good discussion on the importance of effective communication and respectful relationships within a research group, how to achieve such a desirable lab climate, and what to do if things go wrong. It has been my experience that we scientists don't talk very much about interpersonal relationships within our research groups and have little to no training in how to facilitate effective communication. After all, we did not go into scientific research because we were "people persons." Unfortunately, although good research can be done in an unpleasant lab climate, poor communication and relationships usually translate into time and energy wasted on bitter thoughts and feelings, plus opportunities missed because of a lack of cooperation and sharing of ideas. We wouldn't tolerate such a situation if the problem were lack of skill in an experimental technique; we would seek out advice, information or training. Dealing with an interpersonal conflict is the last thing most scientists want to do, but as we can see from this case, we can't always just pretend the problem doesn't exist.

How does one facilitate effective, respectful communication within a research group? Someone with training in management or psychology might be better suited to answer that question. I know of one institutional program designed to help academics learn effective, respectful communications skills (Klomparens and Beck, 2002), which could also be incorporated as one of the goals of an educational program on the responsible conduct of research (RCR).

In addition, I have some observations and suggestions from my years in the lab. One requirement for good communication is regular meetings: of the entire group, of individuals with the faculty PI, and of small collaborative working groups, if these exist. These meetings should not only feature formal presentations and reports, but should include a lively discussion and questioning of the material presented as well as an exchange of ideas. Meetings of the entire group might sometimes include discussion of cases, like this one. They are also the perfect forum for the discussion of "lab business" concerning policies on keeping the darkroom clean, the proper place and state in which to return the Geiger counter, and the like. After meetings of small working groups, it may be desirable to write up and circulate among the collaborators a record of what was decided at the meetings as a way to avoid misunderstandings and perceived territorial infringements. Regularly scheduled individual meetings enable the PI to keep in touch with what everyone is doing and give lab members a chance to voice concerns without having to make a big thing of it by asking for a special meeting with to PI. Regular meetings help people to become accustomed to talking with each other and understand that the exchange of information is one of the expectations of the research group. Regular meetings also ease informal, day to day communication as people get to know each other better. Informal communication can be further facilitated by nonscientific gatherings of the group (going out for lunch, for instance) and by the PI's frequent participation in the daily discourse of the lab. Just coming in regularly for a morning cup of coffee and some conversation will help the PI keep in touch with the real climate of the lab. Yes, we're all too busy, but regular informal interactions are essential. The most important thing that PIs can do to promote a good climate s in their research groups is to model open, clear, respectful communication with all members of their groups at all times. Monson's decision to privately ask Paul to begin to manage the daily activities of the lab, and then not to discuss this decision or even make it known to the other members of the lab clearly did not help the climate in his lab.

What to do when things go wrong within a research group? The best course is to intervene early. That doesn't mean that you don't give people a little space for occasionally having a bad day, or forgetting to do something they ought. But one shouldn't wait too long to deal with repeated lapses or a simmering tension. A climate where questions were accepted, even expected, would have helped a lot in the case presented here. However, no one wants to bother Monson, nor can they talk with each other in anything other than an accusatory tone. Richard, an undergrad and thus quite low in the lab pecking order, feels that his only recourse is to spend as little time in the lab as possible. If someone had alerted Monson, or if he had spent enough time with the people in his group to realize that something was not right, the critical incident might have been averted. It might also have helped to have a mechanism to defuse the tension when Lisa began leaving equipment dirty. (See Commentary on "The Rat Race," p. 53.)

Discussing what Richard should do after he observes Paul's suspicious behavior is a good opportunity to practice imagination and moral reasoning. First the group can brainstorm all sorts of things Richard might do, and then they can be called upon to determine which option they judge to be the best and explain their reasoning. Brainstorming is a good exercise because people in difficult situations frequently think that they have only two or three options. It takes imagination to find creative middle ground. In Richard's case, he might: call the city police, call Laboratory Safety and leave a message, confront Paul one-on-one in the lab that very evening, do nothing, put a radioactive hazard label on Lisa's chair and walk out, call Monson, call another faculty member, call the New York Times, and so on. There are lots of possibilities if you separate the imaginative from the evaluative process.

After brainstorming, the discussants need to evaluate the options generated, a process usually referred to as moral reasoning. Several guides on how to teach and practice this skill are available (see, for instance, Bebeau, et al., 1995 or Elliott and Stern, 1997). One needs to consider and then balance the moral and legal obligations of the protagonist, the other people who might be affected by his actions and their interests, and the possible consequences of different courses of action. Frequently, it is easiest to start by eliminating the possible courses of action that are unacceptable, being sure to explain one's reasoning, and then move on to consideration of the relative value of the remaining, acceptable options. Just as there is more than one way to build a bridge across a river, there are usually several acceptable options. The discussants may disagree on which is the "best" course of action for Richard to follow because they may weight different obligations or interests differently, and that is fine if their reasoning is sound. There is usually no single right answer to such problems.

In this scenario, Richard chooses the acceptable option of alerting Lisa. One option that is not acceptable is that he do nothing. After all, the contamination threatens not just Lisa, but others who might come into the lab such as the janitorial staff or another grad student who drops by to talk. One could argue that alerting Monson might have been a better course of action. Since it is his lab that is affected, he might be better able to shield Richard from any fallout, and the license for use of radioactive materials is in Monson's name. This is a good topic for discussion.


  • Bebeau, M.J., K.D. Pimple, K.M.T. Muskavitch, S.L.Borden, and D.H. Smith. Moral Reasoning in Scientific Research, Cases for Teaching and Assessment 1995. main.html.
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Author: Karen M. T. Muskavitch, Boston College.

Difficult interactions are not unique to science, but the dynamic of the research setting provides a distinct context for such relationships to develop. Care should be taken, however, to underscore that this case is an example of commendable action on Richard's part. The good practice enveloped within the case should not be overshadowed by the shocking nature of the situation; rather, Richard's laudable actions should be made even more praiseworthy by the remarkable circumstances surrounding his decision.

The case is broken by a decision point for discussion to underscore the critical ethical juncture for Richard and permit the best practice to be examined. Later, the case addresses the contributory roles of all persons involved in a concluding discussion. This commentary will evaluate 1) Richard's decision point and risks, 2) proper or improper actions of Monson, Lisa, Paul and the institution and their roles in potential resolution points in avoiding the situation, 3) assignment of responsibility, and 4) some suggestions on the effective presentation of the case.

Richard's decision Richard is an undergraduate whose introduction to the scientific research endeavor has been appalling. Certainly Richard's perception of laboratory research has been tainted by the deteriorating dynamics of the relationships in Monson's laboratory. From the case, it is unclear to what extent Richard's view of the scientific enterprise has been compromised; however, given the initiation he has received, it appears that Richard may have little incentive to get involved. The case does not comment on whether this is Richard's first research experience or whether he has had previous experience, but it is unlikely that any previous experience would have prepared him for this extreme situation. Richard's subservient role as an undergraduate placed in a situation with a post-graduate researcher and a seasoned technician, however, is indicated. The case reveals that Richard has been affected by the poor relationship between Lisa and Paul. That is why it is interesting to place Richard as the character who must make the ethical decision.

In discussing what Richard should do, an evaluation of the responsibilities and risks posed by each option available to him may provide a richer discussion of the decision point. These choices may not be exhaust the options open to Richard, but they provide an adequate framework for the discussion.

Richard could do nothing.

Richard might assume that no one knows that he has witnessed Paul's actions. That may or may not be a wise assumption. This option may be more justified if Lisa's chair is not contaminated. Remember, Richard could not see what Paul was doing in Lisa's cubicle. If he concludes that Paul was not doing anything wrong in Lisa's cubicle, doing nothing may expose Richard to the least amount of direct risk. He may justify keeping silent based upon his desire to avoid getting involved in Lisa and Paul's squabble. However, Richard does not know whether Lisa's chair is contaminated.

If Richard decides not to tell Lisa, and her chair is contaminated with radioactive residue, Richard may be partly responsible for the health risk presented to Lisa. Richard may argue that only he knows that he saw Paul in Lisa's cubicle and, therefore, he can ignore his responsibility to inform Lisa. This argument, however, may be erroneous. Someone else may have observed Richard in the lab with Paul. In that case, Richard may be suspected as an accessory to the incident. If he does not tell Lisa, Richard would have to live with his conscience (if he believes that informing Lisa is the "right" thing to do ethically, regardless of the consequences) and with the possibility that Lisa's cubicle is contaminated. What if, in the future, he is asked to work in Lisa's cubicle? He could be endangering himself. The status of Lisa's cubicle remains uncertain.

Richard could inform Lisa.

If Richard informs Lisa, it may be concluded that he has become involved in the feud. Thus, Richard assumes some risks. If there is no detectable contamination in Lisa's cubicle, Richard could be accused of fabricating the incident to make Paul look bad. Lisa may contaminate her cubicle herself to make Paul look guilty. If Paul learns of Richard's suspicions, that could dramatically affect Richard's working conditions.

Furthermore, Richard's reputation may be damaged. By informing Lisa, Richard will appear to have taken sides. Lisa might suspect Richard is collaborating with Paul in a practical joke to scare and worry her, especially if she finds no trace of contamination in her cubicle. The risks associated with this outcome may seem remote; however, they might be thoughts that Richard should consider. If he chooses this option, Richard will have satisfied the moral responsibility he may feel to notify Lisa of the potential health hazard.

If Lisa's cubicle has been contaminated, this option would be the most responsible action for Richard; however, the status of Lisa's cubicle remains uncertain. This option would present the least negative implications for Richard, and his actions in this instance might even be considered commendable. Should Richard get involved? What is the most ethical action he could take with the least liability?

Next, the discussion should evaluate the actions of Monson, Lisa, Paul and the institution. The potential resolution points to avoid this situation are briefly considered for each individual. This discussion is presented after Richard's decision point and good practice have been evaluated. Considering the role of each person involved allows the reader to consider how the situation could have been avoided. The points presented here are intended to start a discussion and are not intended to be a complete analysis of each role.

Monson It might be argued that Monson should beware of taking on too many administrative duties. He should not jeopardize the safety of his laboratory because of limited oversight time. Certainly, Monson should be more open about Paul's new responsibilities and the way in which Monson envisions the laboratory functioning while he attends to the additional responsibilities he has accepted. Although Lisa and Paul put on "a convincing facade," if Monson were more involved in the laboratory it would be more difficult for Lisa and Paul to cloak the problem. Monson should be meeting regularly with all of the lab members to discuss their research, lab experience and the operations of the laboratory. Clear communication and a trusting relationship among Monson and all members of the lab could have helped to flag the problems between Lisa and Paul.

Lisa The earliest resolution point in this case would have been for Lisa to address her concerns in a more mature fashion. Much difficulty could have been avoided if Lisa had spoken with Monson about her feelings regardless of the negative response she may have feared. At any point in the deteriorating relationship, Lisa could have stopped the cycle and notified Monson. If she had fostered a relationship of trust with Monson and Paul, the problems would have been easier to resolve.

Paul Undoubtedly, Paul should have spoken with either Lisa or Monson about the developing destructive relationship. It appears that he did not speak with Lisa because he felt that his authority was threatened; he may have not spoken with Monson because he did not want to appear incompetent to fulfill his new responsibilities. It appears, however, that speaking up would have been much better than his final action. Because the case is not written from Paul's perspective, it is unclear what caused Paul to take this rash action. Irrational behavior is not uncommon in working environments, although this case may be extreme. What can be concluded is that Paul, like Lisa, had numerous points when he could have tried to solve the problem or sought counseling rather than exacerbating the situation for the sake of his authority.

The institution The role of the institution should not be overlooked. It appears that the institution should be more sensitive to the constraints placed upon Monson in trying to run an active research laboratory and attend to secondary administrative duties. The institution certainly should take greater responsibility for educating its staff and students on the responsible conduct of research and for undergraduates' research/laboratory educational experiences. Too often, undergraduates are underlings who are unsupervised and without mentors in contributing to meaningful science and denied educational interaction with the principal investigator. Undergraduate dishwashers can hardly be satisfied with their exposure to the scientific enterprise that the university promised in recruiting them. The institution should, however, be commended for its rapid response to Lisa's request for radioactivity testing. It is also positive to note that Lisa knew whom to contact in the Office of Laboratory Safety to address the situation. These are indications of positive elements in the institution's response.

Third, the element of responsibility is assigned. It is clear that Paul should take the majority of the responsibility for his actions; however, it might be unfair to assign all of the blame to Paul. As outlined above Monson, Lisa and the institution could have acted to ease the conflict and avert Paul's criminal action. When examining this case, discussion of responsibility will focus on Paul, but a second responsibility should not be overlooked. Each of the contributors had a responsibility to Richard (and to each other, but, since Richard is at the heart of the ethical decision, the focus will be on Richard). He has been affected by the incident. His view of research may have been negatively influenced. All parties share, to some extent, in this disservice to Richard and to science. In discussing responsibility, it might be valuable to consider this element.

This commentary attempts to focus on the key decision point presented to Richard and is intended to underscore the central issue of laboratory relationships and what to do when things go wrong. The case features a variety of roles that must interact in a laboratory setting (professor, post-doc, technician and undergraduate). In this case each character's role and status contribute to the conflict. This case draws upon the interpersonal dynamics of a laboratory setting to demonstrate good practice when those dynamics begin to deteriorate.


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