Sunday, December 15, 2013

Morals and the ethics of collaboration

Why can't scientists stick to science at conferences? I find it hard enough to speak to strangers, and to be welcomed by racist comments that I don't know I can address if I am in the perpetrator's country makes it much harder. Racism and sexism are trashy. You shouldn't have to hide racist/sexist/other-ist thoughts. They shouldn't even come to your mind. Yes - the ideal world. 

But are we too sensitive? Do we rush to conclusions too early? Perhaps. The only time I can remember being called explicitly racist was in fourth grade, after I said I didn't want to watch riverdance for the third day straight and said that Irish people drink beer on St. Patrick's Day (apparently saying that Irish people eat boiled dinner isn't racist though). It seemed (and still seems) ridiculous that my teacher should assume I was discriminating against Irish culture, but it made complete sense to her. 

So am I ridiculous in crying racism after some conference attendees told me that Chinese students are lazy, sleep in the lab and only ever pretend to do work, playing video games all the time instead? Maybe. But it is just another reminder that we need to think about what comes out of our mouths and how, because after that comment, I couldn't bring myself to talk science with them. Or talk to them full stop, for that matter. 

Conferences and face-to-face interactions are vital for the spread of scientific knowledge and forging collaborations, but if these are going to be shrouded in ideals that one party vehemently opposes, then once again ideals have shaped the path of science. Human rights and environmental charities are constantly scorning universities and companies for investing in morally grey areas, so why do scientists think it is OK to collaborate with scientists who hold grey morals? 

I think this is probably because we like to think of science and society as separate when convenient. And it is hard to hold a firm stance against poor morals because so many technological improvements have emerged from dark times and/or dark minds (SONAR, RADAR, and the Haber-Bosch process to name a few). 

But where do we draw the line in collaborations? If we ignore the discriminatory tendencies of our collaborators and work with them to advance science, are we also subtly advancing their ideals? What if we cite papers written by people with questionable morals (James Watson comes to mind here)?

Ultimately, are we not guilty by association if we knowingly collaborate with discriminatory colleagues? Is this how the closed-minded norms perpetuate in fields that like to consider themselves open, in the heads of people who like to think of themselves as educated and/or liberals?