News Archive

The Professionalization of Scientific Research

August 08, 2016

Tee GuidottiSigma Xi’s highly influential Honor in Science  is an essential text in scientific freedom and responsibility. I urge every member to read it and to share it widely. The principles are timeless, but researchers need to revisit its message because the role in society played by scientists is changing. Scientific research is morphing, before our eyes, from its roots as a vocation  (in the sense of an inclination or “calling,” not a trade) to a profession, and professions come with regulation. 

A vocation implies motivation by curiosity and personal commitment. It values free sharing of information and ethical values that are shared with society as a whole. Scientists are shifting to the model of a professional practitioner, providing skilled services to society, guided by society’s priorities and funding incentives. Today, research is pursued for a purpose, the fruits of research may belong to a client, and compensation is tied to performance. Provision of research funds, salary support, and access to laboratories and research centers are all controlled and come with regulation, performance requirements, and expectations for compliance with institutional rules. The reality is that these days the research community is already regulated, directly or indirectly. 

The migration of scientists from the vocational to the professional model raises the question of whether there is need for a formal code of ethics for scientific research. By definition, a profession is always bound by a code of ethics that is deontological in origin, that is handed down by the standards of the profession, and that is strict because of the harm that professionals can do to their clients. Standards are set by the professionals themselves, acting autonomously but explicitly regulated by the state, usually through licensure, and enforced by means that can be quite coercive, such as issuing sanctions or revoking a medical license. 

Scholarly fields of study usually do not have true codes of ethics, but they often have codes of conduct to prevent abuse. In 1979, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) considered developing a formal code of ethics for scientific research but decided instead to encourage each field to develop guidance that they thought was appropriate. A few years later, in 1984, a group of scientists attending an Uppsala University seminar in Sweden developed the Uppsala Code of Ethics for Scientists.

I’m not suggesting that scientists aren’t bound by ethical standards―far from it and to believe otherwise is abhorrent. But professionalization calls for greater self-regulation with enforcement than most scientists are likely to find comfortable.
Society is pushing scientific research inexorably into a professional model. We need to understand what this implies and what it means for the future. Discussions about the role of scientists in society and especially on ethics, within and outside of Sigma Xi, have overlooked this evolving tension in what it means to be a scientist. It is, however, becoming our future.

Tee Guidotti's signature

Tee L. Guidotti
Sigma Xi President