Set in a New England forest among the dying stands of eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), the large glass reagent bottles filled with moss, soil, water, and bits of the plant debris stood perched on a stand made of salvaged wood. It is doubtful that any previous user of the bottles would have envisioned their most recent fate. The bottles, once the repository of research reagents, had undertaken a new livelihood as the home for an ecosystem in miniature on the brink of collapse. They were now part of an exhibit blending artistic interventions with the findings of scores of environmental scientists showing that the hemlock, a long-lived foundation evergreen tree of the eastern United States, is rapidly disappearing under the combined pressures of the tiny hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae) insect, which was accidentally introduced from Asia in the 1950s, and ever-warming winters that no longer suppress the insect’s population.
The artist—a visiting scholar to the research forest hosting the exhibit—identified both the enormity of scientific research available on this landscape under change, as well as the wealth of discarded or forgotten scientific materials available for his reenvisioning. The artistic creations told the story not only of a forest “in hospice” but also of the tools and techniques scientists have used to study it and surrounding ecosystems. In their construction and placement, the pieces inevitably also commented on the scientific debris of these research projects: from roads and power lines (infrastructure built to access sites of particular scientific interest), to flagging tape markers, tubes, plastic peeping through the leaf litter, and instrumentation left behind with intent or in error during the rush to complete experiments. Or perhaps simply forgotten bits of experimental remains as scientists joined and left projects that outlived the abrupt project stints that now define many research careers.
Who knows? I pondered the familiarity of ecological experimental designs gone astray in this unusual artistic enterprise. But the day passed and I returned to my own work as an ecosystem ecologist at a nearby college. And thoughts of eco-trash grew distant as the daily concerns of my own scientific agenda resurfaced. Months later, an offhanded remark from a PhD student whose research also centered on samples derived from this forest pushed me to further reflect on this uncomfortable question. “I’m not excited about the new position because I will not fly. . . . And traveling to the East Coast by train will take over three days.” Assuming the student and I shared an apprehension of flying, I responded in kind, only to be told it was neither fear nor the long wait times that detracted her, but rather the extraordinary environmental footprint that air travel necessarily entails.
Her sentiment surprised me. As an environmental scientist, it is rare to hear a remark on the ecological cost of the research livelihood. In this age of increasing environmental urgency, a tension has grown between the pressure to produce high-quality, informative data that uses novel methods and experimental manipulations while also developing and executing ethical frameworks for ecological research. But why am I able to remain a passive participant in this process? Is this environmental cost a necessary price to pay for satisfying scientific curiosity?
Curiosity is foundational to science. Scientific curiosity, characterized by information-seeking specific behaviors, is recognized to be distinct from “common curiosity,” which reflects the excitement (or irritation) that is stirred by novelty.1 Scientific curiosity drives us to mechanistically understand the world through the construction and testing of falsifiable theories via systematic and repeatable observation, measurement, and experimentation.2 While scientific curiosity is arguably an innate component of the human condition, the twentieth century is hallmarked by the growth of professional scientists.3 This expansion in scientific resources and researchers has paralleled exceptional rates of technological advancement and growth in our fundamental understanding of the natural world. It is unlikely that even the most insightful scientists and futurists of the early twentieth century would have even remotely foreshadowed the massive expansions across all fields of science and technology. In less than a century, the collective scientific endeavor has yielded incredible insights and developments ranging from the discovery of the structure of DNA, to the internet, to fundamental shifts in our understanding of the physical processes that govern the universe.4
Intriguingly, despite the tremendous growth in the scientific community and the financial investment in research, the early twentieth-century explosion of “big scientific ideas”—innovations that fundamentally shifted our understanding of the natural world—appears to be decelerating.5 This shift is reflective of increasing recognition that the development of formal institutions and scientific bureaucratization is a double-edged sword. On one side, the expansion beyond the elite to fully immerse oneself in scientific research has resulted in a democratization of the scientific process and accelerated the rate of scientific discovery. On the other hand, the growth of the scientific enterprise drives an industrialization of knowledge production that creates a milieu of resource competition among an ever-expanding population of scientists. As the scientific workforce continues to grow more quickly than the stable job pool for the professional scientist of the twenty-first century, researchers are often valued through the length of their publication list and proposals funded, at a cost of time allocated toward reflection, quality control, and scientific risk-taking.6
Thus, to obtain and maintain one’s position within a professionalized community, scientists face mounting pressure to consistently publish novel research and secure funding through highly bureaucratic schemes.7 As such, the modern scientific enterprise is now shaped by a surplus population of scientists who work not only to satisfy their scientific curiosity but also under the pressure of sustained competition. If the professionalization of science repurposes scientific curiosity away from creative exploration, what are the costs of this retooling? Across the sciences, the rise of “groupthink” behavior, the increasing need for scientific self-promotion, and a stymieing of “risky” research that pushes forward radically new directions in lieu of incremental (but publishable) additions to the core knowledge base is a noted cost of twenty-first-century science.8
Beyond the cost to creativity, what are the additional costs of this intersection between scientific curiosity and scientific professionalization? The accelerated growth of the scientific enterprise has also expanded the potential to experiment. From characterization of microbial genetic material in plastic test tubes, to travel to field sites and conferences, to extensive manipulations of ecosystems designed to test the implications of invasive species and climate warming, scientists can manipulate, document, and alter the natural world to an unprecedented extent and rate. When scientists are pressed to accelerate the production of novel, publishable data sets using cutting-edge techniques and experimentation, is there also a more subtle but pernicious rise in the resource use entwined in carrying out these studies?
History is rife with ethical questions that challenge the methods and justifications for scientific inquiry. In particular, where human and animal subjects are concerned, the risk of harm has guided the development of review boards and guidelines for experimentations and scientific conduct.9 Iconic examples extend across an array of subjects centered in the biomedical and social sciences: from moral questions regarding research conducted on unknowing subjects to debates over the development of technologies such as nuclear power and weapons, genetic modification of organisms, cloning, and stem cells.
While ethical quandaries are an inherent facet (either explicitly or implicitly) of scientific investigation, post–World War II revelations spurred an era of ethical conduct codification and governmental regulation of research practices. Public disclosure of research atrocities, including experiments committed by Nazi doctors on nonconsenting prisoners, the U.S. Public Health Service’s syphilis study on low-income African American males who were unknowingly infected with syphilis and monitored for four decades while treatment was withheld, and the widespread prescribing of teratogen thalidomide for pregnancy-related nausea in the 1950s and 1960s spurred a sea change in the limits on scientific curiosity.10 Responding to these concerns, a suite of research ethics fields (e.g., biological, medical, technological) and governance structures (e.g., institutional review boards, mandated training and monitoring for science students and researchers in responsible research conduct) have emerged to address the moral issues entwined in experimental conduct and technologies development.11
These ethical fields and frameworks have helped to guide and limit the extent of experimentation—in essence, putting a constraint on scientific curiosity in its modern incarnations. Notably, the subject of concern in these ethical paradigms is most often human and, to a lesser extent, nonhuman animals. While the biomedical and social sciences are hallmarked for their connection to ethics, environmental research poses challenging and diverse ethical quandaries ranging from public welfare to the well-being of nonhuman organisms, communities, and ecosystems. Further, although many countries have enacted legislation and institutional-review processes to minimize harm to animals in laboratory and field research, these protocols and norms vary by regulating body, species, and country.12 These requirements tend to focus on vertebrates and other charismatic species,13 but rarely require researchers to consider impacts on other species, biological communities, or ecosystems.
The field of environmental ethics, which largely focuses on the philosophical and ethical justification for species conservation and recovery, as well as the preservation of ecosystems,14 has added to our conceptualization of the valuation of nature. Yet the ethical concerns of environmental scientists remain seldom recognized within and outside of the field.15 Paralleling the rapid rise of the environmental sciences, ecological ethics has emerged as a framework to address this deficit. Drawing from environmental ethics, research ethics, and professional ethics, ecological ethics provides a potential structure for environmental scientists to pragmatically identify ethical issues, weigh ethical considerations, and improve ethical decision-making in the design and conduct of ecological-research and conservation-management agendas.16
In recent years, a small, but growing number of researchers have recognized cases that highlight the typically overlooked costs of environmental science research.17 At the species-level, these scholars have pointed to the unintended consequences of collecting fauna and flora. There is a long history of collecting organisms as curiosities for food, amusement, and scientific investigation that has fundamentally shaped our understanding of global biodiversity.18 However, the scientific practice of cataloging the natural world into “voucher specimens” (and even human intrusion through observation alone) may also have deleterious effects on fragile populations. Taxa as varied as birds, highly endemic plants, and amphibians have all been further threatened with extinction following the overzealous collection by scientists.19 In an era of unprecedented threats to entire habitats and ecosystems, some researchers have further questioned the fundamental efficacy of scientific voucher collections.20
Scaling up, field studies and ecosystem manipulations can have dramatic and potentially irreversible ecological consequences.21 Environmental scientists often implement large-scale experiments to identify the effects of abiotic and biotic changes (such as the invasion of the woolly adelgid) on ecosystem-level properties. How does a scientist define and weigh the ethical considerations, for example, of experimentally deforesting an entire watershed?22 While in situ experimentation is fundamental to the development of modern ecological insights and environmental science more generally, how to meaningfully and systematically identify and weigh the impacts and benefits of environmental science research remains a conceptual and logistical hurdle.
These challenges include determining how to identify whether environmental damage from an experiment would be reversible or not and how to weigh the scale of experimentation footprint relative to the possible return of, for example, a new conception of ecosystem or organismal function, or the development of better-informed regulations on development. How much and what kinds of data are necessary, and how will this information be incorporated into the broader scientific community’s knowledge base? Even data themselves can become a cost. If the integrity of the data is not maintained, if data are not interpreted and published, if changing data interpretation and publication norms mean that new media and new statistical techniques make early interpretations obsolete, what is the future of that information (let alone the true cost of its production)? Scientific continuity falters under a weight of data. How much of modern science is the reemergence of old studies and questions in new experiments, subdisciplines, and journals?23
Despite these myriad considerations, the prevalence of environmental costs carried by research arguably could be at least partly mitigated through more thoughtfully scrutinized experimental design, implementation, and dissemination paradigms. Yet the incorporation of an ecological ethics framework into the environmental scientist’s toolkit remains a rarity. Again, I find myself asking, “Why?”
I am an environmental scientist of the twenty-first century. Thus I am a scientist studying the natural world in an era of unprecedented environmental change, where the distinction between “human” and “natural” processes has become increasingly challenging to identify. While early natural scientists may have been wholly concerned with identifying these laws in their most innate form, the exponential growth of the human footprint upon the environment has yielded no natural system untouched by human influence. Reflecting this era of unprecedented environmental change shaped by extraordinary pollutant levels, climate change, biodiversity loss, and the reshaping of ecosystems globally through human use, the natural sciences have grown multiple fields centered on understanding environmental systems and their responses to these massive perturbations.
My own curiosity to understand the mechanisms that drive the natural world has been inevitably shaped by the anthropogenic forces that ripple through every aspect of the Earth system. As an ecologist, many studies I have learned from and worked with involve a brute force approach to understanding the mechanisms of the natural world and their response to anthropogenic global-change pressures. Over a decade ago, in the forest where art pieces now stand, scientists tested the ecosystem effects of slowly dying, adelgid-infested hemlocks by girdling one living stand—that is, severing its vascular system—while preemptively clear-cutting a neighboring stand.24 Curious about the inevitable, can we gain knowledge that will inform our governance of the land? And does this knowledge justify a preemptive strike to eradicate a forest stand?
As my own scientific career has progressed, I have become less certain of the answer. Ethical conduct in environmental science is complicated by both its philosophical and practical contexts. The incidental costs of research do not present a paradigmatic moral problem. They lack the framework whereby one actor intentionally harms another, both the actors and the harm are clearly identifiable, and there is a close spatial and temporal coupling of the agent and recipient of harm, as well as the harmful act in itself.25 This decoupling, combined with the growth of groupthink and group norms for research conduct, allows for a passive neglect of the harms researchers might inadvertently create through their activities. In contrast to the research reforms of the twentieth century that were marked by concern for human welfare, the cost of scientific curiosity is thus difficult for the actor—the scientist—to identify in part because of its morally opaque nature.
While still sparsely found among the multitude of publications lamenting the challenges faced by environmental scientists and other researchers in an era of academic contraction and declining research funding, others have pinpointed the tension between embodying environmental stewardship and the professional obligations of an environmental researcher. After calculating that the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting—the world’s largest annual international gathering of Earth and space scientists—accounted for five millionths of total global anthropogenic emissions from fossil fuels in 2012, an emerita professor of paleoclimatology boldly argued that the social and scientific connections gained from this event did not justify its environmental costs.26 In critiquing what she assessed to be a disproportionate carbon footprint of such large and travel-intensive scientific meetings, Parrish also suggested that scientific bodies must rapidly reshape the nature of their meetings to reduce carbon-intensive travel by embracing technologies that support remote meeting platforms. Reflecting on the teachings of Rabbi Hillel the Elder, this senior scientist provocatively asked her community: “If not us, who? If not now, when?”27
Such observations are not limited to dialogue between members of the scientific community in specialty journals. When the Washington Post reported in 2016 that, for the third consecutive year, annual fossil fuel emissions had not grown, the phenomenon was showcased as an environmental success story reflecting the data analysis of “a massive study . . . written by no less than 67 researchers from an army of institutions.”28 Readers of the article posted a variety of comments about the findings and the climate science enterprise more generally, of which a particular string caught my attention.
I read that there are thousands upon thousands of people who jetted into Marrakesh to attend the climate conference. These are all people who get taxpayer-funded grants to live on while they study the climate and jet around the world to attend conferences. Makes me all warm inside to know this.—rand49er
It’s like having a friend come to you and say that getting fake tans from tanning beds causes skin cancer. You remark that he looks awfully tan, and he says, “[Y]es, that’s because I use a tanning bed.” You say, “But I thought you just said that tanning beds cause cancer.” “Yep, they do—it’s known science. Well, I’m off to the tanning bed!” I would doubt the tanning beds really cause cancer. Likewise, I’ll start [to] believe that burning fossil fuels are dooming the planet when the people who swear that burning carbon fuels are dooming the planet start ACTING like burning fossil fuels are dooming the planet. —mackbuckets
These are false analogies used to make a specious argument. That is, no one would use a tanning bed as a way of working to reduce the use of tanning beds. The current transportation system depends upon fossil fuels and we must use that system to try to carry out the mission of bringing change, which includes meeting in person to share and develop information and build relationships that improve our understanding of the risks, the chances of reducing emissions, and our abilities to mitigate impacts. —FungibleTruth
As a scientist who travels for meetings and research campaigns, my initial instincts (perhaps for personal preservation) drew me to agree with FungibleTruth. Yet the comments of mackbuckets and rand49er are not so easily brushed aside. The fundamental question remains: How might we ensure that the environmental costs of scientific endeavors yield a net ecological benefit without compromising scientific curiosity (and professional advancement)? In order to be more readily accepted by the public and better aligned with our collective understanding of the anthropogenic nature of modern environmental change, this tension of seeming hypocrisy that is alluded to in the Washington Post article comments demands careful consideration and honest discussion from within the environmental science community. But are we ready to have this conversation?
Responding to the recent call by Jane Lubchenco, former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, for environmental scientists to “make a quantum leap into relevance,”29 a group of four firmly established environmental scientists wrote an opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education stressing that junior researchers must rediscover their scientific curiosity.30 These scholars recognized the misalignment of academic vetting with the pursuit of scientific curiosity and ultimately, the ability of scientists to make the quantum leaps that our rapidly changing biosphere demands. They suggest building a scientific career around the pursuit for sustained discovery coupled with intellectual fulfillment and societal influence, but they also recognize that the success of this imperative rests upon a restructuring of the current metrics of scientific success. A lofty call to action. What will be the cost of inaction?
I have come to reflect upon my own research decisions as inevitably shaped by the scientific paradigms and norms within which I have developed. My scientific curiosity is also governed by the professionalization of the scientific enterprise. As such, I am challenged to conceive novel research questions, employ innovative methodologies, produce data sets, publish peer-reviewed articles, and disseminate my findings while building and retaining my professional networks largely through air travel. Most recently, I find myself weighing a field season in the Arctic and the travel for various meetings that looms ahead. To go opens up the potential for new discoveries, a strengthening of my scientific network, and the growth of intellectual capital. To stay suggests that the environmental costs of travel, field, and laboratory work may not justify these benefits.
Working within this context, even if a strong ethical framework for environmental science can be identified, is self-regulation of scientific conduct reasonable to expect in an era of hypercompetitive and individualistic professional science? Should, for example, one be more conservative in their travel for field research and meetings? And what would be the cost of such a decision for fulfilling one’s scientific curiosity and activities? Fundamentally, can actions that come at a high cost to scientific curiosity be separated from those that come at a high cost to the professional demands of the modern scientific enterprise?
Jaimie Jirout and David Klahr, “Children’s Scientific Curiosity: In Search of an Operational Definition of an Elusive Concept,” Developmental Review 32, no. 2 (2012): 125–60, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2012.04.002.
Stephen E. Toulmin, “The Evolutionary Development of Natural Science,” American Scientist 55, no. 4 (1967): 456–71, https://www.jstor.org/stable/27837039.
Giovanni Frazzetto, “The Changing Identity of the Scientist,” EMBO Reports 5, no. 1 (2004): 16–18, https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.embor.7400063; Peder Olesen Larsen and Markus von Ins, “The Rate of Growth in Scientific Publication and the Decline in Coverage Provided by Science Citation Index,” Scientometrics, 84, no. 3 (2010): 575–603, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-010-0202-z.
Frazzetto, “Changing Identity”; Donald Geman and Stuart Geman, “Opinion: Science in the Age of Selfies,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 34 (2016): 9384–87, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1609793113.
Geman and Geman, “Opinion.”
Geman and Geman.
Frazzetto, “Changing Identity”; Peter A. Lawrence, “The Mismeasurement of Science,” Current Biology 17, no. 15 (2007): R583–R585, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2007.06.014.
Geman and Geman, “Opinion”; Larsen and von Ins, “Rate of Growth.”
Barry Bozeman and Paul Hirsch, “Science Ethics as a Bureaucratic Problem: IRBs, Rules, and Failures of Control,” Policy Sciences 38, no. 4 (2005): 269–91, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11077-006-9010-y.
Bozeman and Hirsch.
Kirsten M. Parris et al., “Assessing Ethical Trade-Offs in Ecological Field Studies,” Journal of Applied Ecology 47, no. 1 (2010): 227–34, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2009.01755.x.
Mark J. Costello et al., “Field Work Ethics in Biological Research,” Biological Conservation 203 (2016): 268–71, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2016.10.008.
Ioan Fazey, Joern Fischer, and David B. Lindenmayer, “What Do Conservation Biologists Publish?” Biological Conservation 124, no. 1 (2005): 63–73, http://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2005.01.013.
Parris et al., “Assessing Ethical Trade-Offs.”
Ben A. Minteer and James P. Collins, “Ecological Ethics: Building a New Tool Kit for Ecologists and Biodiversity Managers,” Conservation Biology 19, no. 6 (2005): 1803–12, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2005.00281.x; Parris et al., “Assessing Ethical Trade-Offs.”
G. K. D. Crozier and Albrecht I. Schulte-Hostedde, “Towards Improving the Ethics of Ecological Research,” Science and Engineering Ethics 21, no. 3 (2015): 577–94, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-014-9558-4; Ben A. Minteer and James P. Collins, “Why We Need an ‘Ecological Ethics,’” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 3, no. 6 (2005): 332–37.
Costello et al., “Field Work Ethics”; Crozier and Schulte-Hostedde, “Ethics of Ecological Research;” Elizabeth J. Farnsworth and Judy Rosovsky, “The Ethics of Ecological Field Experimentation,” Conservation Biology 7, no. 3 (1993): 463–72; https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1523-1739.1993.07030463.x; Minteer and Collins, “‘Ecological Ethics’”; Ben A. Minteer and James P. Collins, “From Environmental to Ecological Ethics: Toward a Practical Ethics for Ecologists and Conservationists,” Science and Engineering Ethics 14, no. 4 (2008): 483–501, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-008-9087-0.
Farnsworth and Rosovsky, “Ethics.”
Farnsworth and Rosovsky; Ben A. Minteer et al., “Avoiding (Re)extinction,” Science 344, no. 6181 (2014): 260–61, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1250953.
Jared M. Diamond, “Justifiable Killing of Birds?” Nature 330, no. 6147 (1987): 423–23, https://doi.org/10.1038/330423a0.
Farnsworth and Rosovsky, “Ethics.”
Gene E. Likens et al., “Effects of Forest Cutting and Herbicide Treatment on Nutrient Budgets in the Hubbard Brook Watershed-Ecosystem,” Ecological Monographs 40, no. 1 (1970): 23–47, https://doi.org/10.2307/1942440.
Aaron M. Ellison, “Decomposition and Memory,” in Forest under Story: Creative Inquiry in an Old-Growth Forest, ed. Nathaniel Brodie, Charles Goodrich, and Frederick J. Swanson, 77–83 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016).
Aaron M. Ellison et al., “Experimentally Testing the Role of Foundation Species in Forests: The Harvard Forest Hemlock Removal Experiment,” Methods in Ecology and Evolution 1, no. 2 (2010): 168–79, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2041-210X.2010.00025.x.
Dale Jamieson, “The Moral and Political Challenges of Climate Change,” in Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change, ed. Susanne Moser and Lisa Dilling, 475–82 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
Judith Totman Parrish, “Should AGU Have Fly-In Meetings Anymore?” Eos 98 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO089361.
Chris Mooney, “Stunningly Good News for the Planet: Carbon Emissions Were Flat for the Third Straight Year,” Washington Post, November 13, 2013.
Jane Lubchenco, “Environmental Science in a Post-truth World,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 15, no. 1 (2017): 3, https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.1454.
Emily S. Bernhardt et al., “Rethinking the Scientific Career,” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 3, 2017.