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The Scientific Virtues Interviews:
A National Survey of the Ethical Perceptions
of Scientific Leaders


Within the scientific community, the professional research values of working scientists, and especially the character virtues of the most exemplary scientists, become the foundation for the practice of scientific research in all fields.  Professional ethical virtues affect the way that scientists think about each other and their work as well as non-scientific issues.  But despite the importance of these values, there are many unanswered questions about them.  What are the normative virtues that are taken to constitute the scientific character?  Do all scientists share a common conception of scientific virtue or are there significant differences between disciplines?  How are normative virtues transmitted and instilled by the scientific community?

We are particularly interested in the distinctive epistemic and ethical values in science.  These are professional ideals of character and, derivatively, of action. This is not an abstract ideal but one with important consequences for responsible action.  While we do not dismiss traditional principle-based ethics, we believe that there is much to be gained conceptually and practically by emphasizing the notion of moral character in its distinctive scientific sense.

Viewing science and virtue in this way will seem paradoxical to those who are used to thinking of science as being amoral or free of values.  However, while there are certainly logical limits to what scientific methods can do by themselves regarding ethical questions, we believe that there is a deep ethical structure to science that is closely connected to its goals and methodology.  We hypothesize that that scientists do share a tacit conception of the virtues that constitute the ideals of the scientific character, but that they do not typically come to understand these by formal means.  Rather, they primarily absorb these through mentoring relationships with senior scientists who pass them on by example or through anecdotes about other researchers who are seen as exemplifying one or another aspect of scientific virtue.

We developed and piloted tested a survey instrument which we will use to collect information from a representative sample of 1000 leading scientists about their views about science and virtue and their current thinking about the translation of these ethical values into research practices and their transmission to young scientists.  Using the same sampling and measurement methods used to examine the attitudes and policy preferences of science leaders on other topics, we aim to provide an accurate summary of the current ethical thinking of scientific leaders individually and as a leadership group.

In addition to the general value of this information for understanding community norms and mechanisms of self-regulation, we expect that such information will provide a new model that will be of benefit for improving the teaching of scientific practice and habits of mind, and also for responsible conduct of research (RCR) education and mentoring.  Science leaders influence both the research agenda within their selected fields and provide the ethical foundation that defines acceptable and unacceptable research practices. Although there is a growing literature on many of the operational issues involving research integrity and scientific misconduct, there has been very little empirical research on the development, structure, and nature of the scientific character virtues and the professional ethical values that form the foundation of professional conduct and against which violations of ethical research practices are judged.

The knowledge gained from this survey will be of interest to professional scientists, sociologists, philosophers, and other scholars whose work touches on issues of science and its values.  Science educators will find this useful to better understand the scientific mind-set they seek to instill in their students as they learn the practices of science. Scientific funding agencies, especially NIH and NSF, are another important audience because of the necessity of RCR training for all their funded projects.  Finally, we expect that the picture of the scientist that emerges from this study will also be of interest to general public, and that explicit attention to values will help researchers better communicate about science to non-scientists.



Robert T. Pennock
Lyman Briggs College
Dept. of Philosophy
Dept. of Computer Science and Engineering
Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior Graduate Program

Jon Miller
Director, International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy

Current Students and Postdocs

Chet McLeskey Eric Berling Tony GIvhan Wendy Johnson
Chet McLeskey
PhD Student

PhD Student

Wendy Johnson
PhD Student


Previous Project Members

Karen Meagher
(Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues)



Last Updated: 2014/11/04