Have ethics ever influenced your choice of career? While the ethical questions raised by animal experimentation or weapons research are obvious, ethical problems can arise in any job. An Ethical Career in Science and Technology? aims to help by introducing scientists and engineers to some of the issues and ethical dilemmas they might face in both their current and future careers.

The guide has been produced by Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), in association with the Martin Ryle Trust. Stuart Parkinson, of SGR, explains that scientists should consider their professional ethics: "Whilst it may be government or industry that takes the final decision on whether to use or not use a particular technology, it is we, as the scientists and engineers, that give them these technologies in the first place. It is therefore the ethical decisions we take in our work (whether consciously or unconsciously) that are critical in shaping the society of the future."

In addition to giving an overlook of common ethical issues, the guide describes the experience of scientists from different fields surveyed between 1999 and 2000. Not too surprisingly SGR found that many factors influence the ethical views of scientists. For some, their views had been shaped when growing up within a particular religious or political environment. Others became aware of ethics only after a specific event, such as a dissection class at school. Travel can also be a trigger--visiting or living in a foreign country with a prominent ethical stance often prompted questions. But more concerning for SGR, scientists often started giving serious thoughts to ethics only after being confronted with a dilemma at work. Prior to this they had simply followed whatever convention dictated.

Different disciplines also vary in the exposure to ethics they offer during training. One-third of the scientists had taken courses involving ethics, most of which were environmental scientists. For some the courses were useful and helped clarify what they wanted from their careers. However, others found that the courses were not taken seriously by the lecturers or the students themselves and often considered as a waste of time. With hindsight, though, ethics courses were often looked upon favourably. The scientists then offered strong support for teaching ethics as part of a science degree, especially when scientists and engineers were explicitly expected to be aware of the social implications of their work. It was suggested that debates or role-playing would meet with least resistance from students. The scientists also warned that specific ethical viewpoints should not be taught--but instead, the skills required for participation in ethical debate.

Part of the survey also dealt with how scientists and engineers handled ethical issues in their careers. Some had worked on weapons-related projects and felt the best move was to quit. But taking the decision to leave a secure post is not always easy. Others came across organisations that addressed ethical issues during job interviews. While they felt it could ruin the chances of being offered the job, it was likely to prevent problems from developing later on.

Many of the scientists felt worried about the growing influence of large corporations, whatever their field. They were mainly concerned with whether or not the work of the corporations was in the best interest of society, and also raised less obvious issues. What should you do when your company, whose values match your own, merges with or is taken over by a company with questionable ethics? Can you justify working for your original company, if you are contributing to the success of the other? Some scientists tried to avoid these issues by choosing an academic career.

But academic careers present their own problems too. Short-term contracts force some researchers into taking the first job offered, without any consideration of the ethical implications of the project. Others are funded by the commercial sector, restricting them from publishing freely or speaking about their work--and in the worst scenario, directing results towards the interest of the company. Another point that was made on how many personal pension schemes, including those of universities, are invested in large corporations. So while scientists are doing their best to be ethical in their personal and professional lives, they may well find that the money they are putting by for their future serves less ethical purposes.

So what advice can these scientists and engineers offer to young researchers? Importantly, you should think about ethics as soon as possible, rather than waiting for a situation to arise that might affect your career. You are encouraged to understand the wider issues related to your work, by finding out how nonscientists feel about science and talking to people already working in the fields you are considering to break into. You should then pursue jobs accordingly to your viewpoints. This is easier said than done, especially if it means discarding the specialist knowledge you have spent years building up. However, it is important to remember that scientists and engineers have many transferable skills, and many have successfully changed disciplines. And once in their jobs, young scientists should stick to their ethical principles, no matter what the external pressures are. You should not be naïve though--science does require flexibility, and personal and professional ethics may have to be separated. What if the only source of funding comes from commercial or politically involved organisations? Do you step away from a potentially successful line of research?

But what happens if, in spite of all this, you still find yourself carrying out work that contradicts your ethics? Use the resources around you. In particular, SGR is now publishing a series of briefings that offer more in-depth analysis of ethical controversies. It is also important to remember there is no need to be isolated. Try to find a mentor or senior colleague to turn to, or contact a union or professional organisation for advice. Also keep establishing contacts both inside and outside science, and getting involved in debates, just to help you keep a clear idea of where you stand, even under pressure.

You may be lucky and never have to lose sleep over ethical issues during your career. However if you do, think about how you may feel when you look back at how you handled the issue a few years down the line. Will you be happy with the choices you've made?

SGR's four steps towards an ethical career

  • Educate yourself about wider issues.
  • Decide where you stand--and what you would do if your views were compromised.
  • Try to choose a career path consistent with these views, but be aware you might have to reevaluate your views or change jobs.
  • Get support.