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A Deep Dive into Ethics for Science Professionals

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Take a Closer Look at Shirley Boyd's Compelling Course

Shirley Boyd teaches AScL 6315 Legal and Ethical Issues for Science Professionals, a course in the CCAPS Applied Sciences Leadership master’s program. We caught up with her to break down some of the main topics she covers in class and the growing ethical issues that affect all of us.

Ethical Personality Types

Shirley Boyd

Students in the class read Business Ethics: Case Studies and Selected Readings by Marianne Jennings. One of the readings outlines 11 different types of ethical personalities, from someone who is completely ethical to someone who would lie without hesitation.

“What I talk to the students about is 1) what is your ethical type, 2) what about your manager or the people you work with, and 3) what if you're an ethical person and your manager is/colleagues are not? It helps you in managing the environment or maybe deciding the environment isn’t for you.”

Students perform an informal evaluation to determine what type of ethical personality they think they have. This assessment helps them observe and identify what other people's types are and how they impact their and others’ actions and decisions when facing ethical dilemmas.

Cognitive Bias

The class helps students understand how their perspectives on an issue may be shaped by their upbringing, environment, or workplace. But there are also intuitive shortcuts in decision making that can distort our thinking, independent of those factors. These shortcuts can lead to various forms of systematic errors in thinking, which are called cognitive biases.

“We ask students to think through some of these common cognitive biases as they’re looking at a situation. If you challenge yourself and avoid these errors, how does that impact your decision?”

"What if you're an ethical person and your manager is/colleagues are not?"

The internet and social media are prime examples of feeding a very common type of cognitive bias called confirmation bias. They use algorithms to feed us items based on our clicking, reading, and “liking” behavior. The information we see typically reinforces a belief we already hold. That’s why, Boyd explains, it can sometimes be difficult to find viewpoints opposing your own online.

The Power of Facts and Stakeholder Perspectives

When evaluating a situation, it’s important to get all the facts and key stakeholders’ perspectives “so you're not just looking at it through one lens.”

Two businesspeople listening to a coworker

Boyd uses the Union Carbide pesticide leak in India in 1984 as one example of the importance of fact-finding. Over 600,000 people were exposed to deadly chemicals, with as many as 16,000 deaths. “There was a lot of negative press about this company, much of it deserved. But as you looked at additional information you realized that there were government officials who were pushing the company to do things that greatly increased the risks.”

For example, Union Carbide was not permitted to bring in its own experts in plant design, construction, and operation. The government was not willing to pay the increased costs of additional safety requirements and waived a zoning requirement that permitted the plant to be built where it was built. And the government also actively encouraged high density residential development near the plant.

Red Flags

Boyd also helps students identify red flags that may indicate a potential noncompliance. These include:

When someone claims everybody else is doing it. “I quickly learned to ask the question, so who is doing it? And you'd get back different responses. Either they couldn't come up with anybody, or they named a company with a significantly different risk profile, where the fallout from an ethical problem would be much less than that for our company.”

When someone says the authorities are not enforcing it. Some leaders may perform an economic calculation, Boyd says, where they weigh the cost of the fine versus the cost of fixing the problem. “There are some companies that will say, 'I'll wait until OSHA cites me because I can postpone that expense'.” But this is neither ethical or legal.

When there’s a conflict of interest. A conflict of interest in business is when someone may personally benefit from a business decision that is not in the best interests of the company. “When somebody has a conflict of interest, they're going to have a built-in bias,” she says. Someone may be receiving gifts or invitations to events in return for business. Or a decision may result in an immediate bonus or perk, but the decision is not in the best long-term interest of the company.

What Are the Next Big Ethical Issues?

Sunlight on desert and grass

For Boyd, it’s climate change/environmental issues and human rights. What are the effects of our desire for an increased standard of living on the environment and workers? Can we change our behavior if it means more sustainable practices and a fairer workplace?

“Nobody wants to give up their current standard of living,” she says, “but if we don't, what are the implications? Because you can't just say we have these issues and it's somebody else's responsibility.“

Part of that responsibility is speaking up and taking necessary action. By the end of the semester, students develop a process to use when they see a potential legal or ethical dilemma. The process will help them identify the issues, key stakeholders, steps to take, questions to ask, possible solutions and implications and, finally, appropriate actions to take.

"This is a valuable tool for anyone going into business, not just science professionals."

A Lasting Impact

"I think we’d all like to leave the world a better place than when we entered it," Boyd says.

"Ethics—personal and professional—is an area that I think I have had and can continue to have a positive impact. If I can just leverage students in my classes—i.e., each student implements what they have learned in class and positively impacts the ethical behavior of only two people, and those two each impact two, etc., pretty soon we’ll have a pandemic of ethical behavior."