Changing research practices and breakdowns of moral habitus

Stories of scientific misbehaviour and scandals on the one hand, and illegitimate influence and pressure on scientific activity on the other, typically play a key role in the teaching of research ethics. These lead to the community expressing anger and outrage and calls for academic reflection and action. Merton’s work on the ethos of science was formulated against a background of worrying economic, military and political influences on science in the pre- and post-WWII period (Mendelsohn, 1989; Merton, 1938). Although such issues are key issues in research ethics, textbooks typically highlight stories of researchers’ misbehaviour, presenting the history of the field as a response to them. As, for instance, Schraader-Frechette notes, ‘few wrote about research ethics until a series of scandals, involving fabrication of experiments and deception of research subjects, occurred in the 1960s and 1970s’, followed by leading US research institutions establishing university guidelines in the early 1980s and the establishing of medical research ethical committees worldwide at the end of the 1980s (Schraader-Frechette, 1994: 2—3). Research ethics more generally, as Knut Reuter (2002) argues in a Norwegian reader in research ethics, arose from a growing awareness of a need to ‘protect individuals and society’ against research; existing professional standards could not prevent harm to individual citizens, society or the environment.

What matters here is that a prevailing self-understanding among researchers was challenged: the understanding that research activity itself was an intrinsically good activity could not be taken for granted. Research was taken as an expression of progress and emancipation (Reuter, 2002: 17). True scientific research activity could not itself take part in oppression or injustice. Scientific research was, as the philosopher of science Jerome Ravetz put it, taken as ‘symbol of the Good and the True’, and its character as a truth-seeking activity was conditioned by the way in which it was decoupled from other societal activities. This has been the dominant self-understanding of researchers reflected in the discussions found in the dominating pre- and post-war philosophy of science as found in the Vienna circle, Popper, Lakatos and Kuhn (Ravetz, 1991: 5).

Research results could of course be misused, and research activities could themselves be corrupted by social factors or personal interests. But research activity itself was assumed to be a good — certainly not something individuals and society would need to seek protection from. In experiencing that such protection was needed, however - when such a need for protection was found to be true - the practitioners simultaneously experienced a breakdown of moral habitus. As the morality of taken- for-granted customs and habits was found to be dubious, it created an urgent need to restore the practice as a morally defendable practice. Doing research ethics arises in such situations as a reflection on the morality of research practice.

Research scandals call attention to the limitations of existing standards, bad cultures or the need for institutional changes. But moral reflection, one could say, also took the form of empirical and philosophical investigations of how research had come to be seen as decoupled from other societal activities (Latour, 1993) instead of being ‘co-produced’ by economic, social and political changes (Jasanotf, 2004, 2015). In research ethics the moral dimension of science studies is made explicit, as expressed in the work of the physics professor John Ziman’s (2000) attempt to re-articulate the Mertonian cudos.

In a paper from 1998 Ziman reflects on changes that have occurred during his career. When he entered science in the early 1950s, ethics did not figure regularly in public discourse about science. Fifty years later, however, the ethics of science is discussed everywhere; he notes, it ‘not only occupies media slots and Sunday supplements. It also energizes scholarly books, journals, conferences and curricula’ (1998: 1813). Researchers must become more ethically sensitive than they used to be, Ziman argues, not primarily because research has become more empowered, risky or dangerous - but because of the ways in which academic institutions are transformed into new forms of social institutions. Ziman (2000) describes these transformations as a movement from ‘academic’ to a ‘post-academic’ research that calls for ethical reflection on the moral demands of the new workplaces (for related analysis of changing research conditions see Gibbons et al., 1994; Nowotny et at., 2001; Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1990). In the last decades, analysis of changes in the modus operandi of research activity has increasingly revolved around notions like open science or science 2.0, drawing attention to how ICT and network technologies both distort and open new avenues for research practice.

Established professional academic identities of the 1950s were shaped in a time when it was possible to model professional identities in accordance with some stable and well-defined boundaries within disciplines, between public and private research institutions and founding agents as well as between pure and applied research. The trends of the past decades, described in the works cited above, show that researchers need to learn how to work in an interdisciplinary work environment where traditional institutional boundaries have eroded, as bonds are formed that cut across the boundaries of industry, research and politics. It is a long time since universities were self-governed by an academic board of professors, pursuing academic goals and primarily educated as a small portion of elite citizens. Researchers now need to be trained to work in close collaboration with other sectors of society to meet practical goals and handle intellectual property rights issues and the demands of innovation. These trends in research practices have over the past decades created new professional challenges for researchers.

 
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