NIEHS offered a refreshing alternative to computer-based ethics training, with a live Ethics Day event that mixed humor with problem solving. This year’s program attracted a capacity audience Dec. 2 and included two ethicists, who added spice and variety to the usual review of rule changes and prohibited behavior.
NIEHS Ethics Office Director Bruce Androphy, J.D., who developed the Ethics Day format, moderated the event with NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. For the first time, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) authorized the live event as meeting the annual training requirement. “This year is a watershed,” Birnbaum said.
Judging from audience response, many attendees would second NIEHS employee Kelly Lenox’s assessment of the fast-paced program. “I learn so much more this way than I do through online training,” she said.
Speakers apply ethics to every day issues
This year’s event featured two nationally recognized speakers. Justina Fugh, J.D., is senior ethics counsel with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Kevin Elliott, Ph.D., from Michigan State University, is an authority on the philosophy of science and a member of the NIEHS National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council.
Both Fugh and Elliott addressed real-life issues faced by NIEHS scientists and administrative staff. They extended the notion of ethical compliance beyond following rules and addressed the critical need to understand and embody the spirit of integrity on the job and in public communication.
Social media and seeking outside employment
Fugh peppered her talk with references to ethics in a social-media world. She updated attendees on changes for outside gifts, awards, and participation in widely attended events.
New rules about seeking employment were also emphasized. Fugh defined how taking steps to explore job opportunities could lead to conflicts for civil servants. They need to seek ethical advice early in a job search to determine whether to step out of activities that affect a company or organization they are seeking employment with.
Rethinking the disinterested scientist
Elliott challenged the so-called just-the-facts, value-free ideal for scientists. As an alternative to this disinterested approach, he suggested that communication and data interpretation be characterized by transparency and critical engagement. This involves accepting a responsibility to society, taking science beyond data crunching, and bringing scientific findings to issues in the social and legal arena.
Scientists influence the interpretation of their research, Elliott contended, simply by how they select and organize data, and the words they use to describe it. In contexts such as risk assessment and public health, he said one’s values almost inevitably enter into judgments about scientific findings. Elliott cited position papers by several NIEHS and NTP scientists, including Birnbaum. “Science is not just the data,” he quoted her as writing. “Science is the interpretation of the data.”
Maintaining the public trust
When the program turned to details of government ethical guidelines, a part of this year’s annual training, Androphy’s wit kept the audience engaged. His message did not stop at compliance with written rules, but addressed the unwritten contract to maintain the public trust. For example, violations of that trust may include employee lobbying or advocacy. “It’s OK on personal time and with your own resources,” he said, “but don’t identify it as a federal endorsement or yourself as a government employee.”
Androphy also emphasized the implications of noncompliance with examples of how high the stakes may be. “Conflict of interest can become a criminal matter,” he advised. That point was driven home when NIEHS Bioethicist David Resnik, J.D., Ph.D., challenged the audience with a photo quiz of past public figures involved in unethical behavior.
(Eddy Ball, Ph.D., is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)