Ethics Article

Community Collaborations
Related article: Chronicle of Higher Education
Related article: C&EN News: Ethics
Aron Reppman, Trinity Christian College,
Department of Philosophy

The Ethics of Community/Undergraduate Collaborative Research in Chemistry
Alanah Fitch
Department of Chemistry
Loyola University of Chicago

Aron Reppmann
Department of Philosophy
Loyola University of Chicago

John Schmidt
After School Action Program

Solicited chapter for American Association of Colleges and University monograph on Service-Learning in Environmental Studies.

Types of Ethical Issues That Arise in Chemistry Service-Learning

 This article describes ethical issues related to service-learning in  “Instrumental Methods of Analysis,” a course for junior and senior chemistry majors. 

 In our chemistry senior/junior majors instrumental analysis class we  have chosen a community “service-learning” context for the unknown analysis in response to our mission statement: “Loyola University of Chicago is a Jesuit Catholic university dedicated to knowledge in the service of humanity.....The university strives to develop in its community a capacity for critical and ethical judgement and a commitment to action in the service of faith and justice....An urban institution, Loyola benefits from Chicago’s exceptional cultural, economic, and human resources.  In turn, the university affirms its longstanding commitment to urban life - and works to solve its problems...”.  

 The variable community of students (1 semester membership) mediated (through the faculty member) interaction with urban community activist groups (also a fluid membership) has created a unique set of both planned and unplanned ethical issues.    The planned ethical issues are relatively simple ones and are easily dealt with.  They consist of discipline-centered or constitutive values (deciding between competing theories or experimental methodologies)  (Longino, 1983).  These values are those that have been defended in various formulations of the philosophy of science as value-neutral (Procter, 1991).

 More crucially the collaboration between fluid communities (student/urban) groups are those that arise during the semester due to the class’ community context.  As Hollander (1991) writes: “‘Good’ science is not enough for professionals to fulfill the requirements of moral responsibility”.   These are ethical, ideological, and cultural values that Longino (1983) has defined as contextual values: the social context in which science and technology are practiced.

 For example, the Incinerator II study, carried out in Fall of 1995, raised issues of ownership of data and of scare science.  In this study students sampled soils near the City of Chicago’s municipal solid waste incinerator which was located in a predominately minority community.  Despite finding some “elevated” soil lead values we were unable to answer the simple question: Does the incinerator deposit lead?  We had not, in fact, adequately sampled in the appropriate places.  Furthermore, the background levels of soil lead in urban Chicago were sufficiently high that lead from the incinerator would be difficult to identify, unless it was quite large, as might occur only within a tight radius of the incinerator.

 More troubling, and raising a important ethical issue, was the fact that the significance of our findings could easily be massaged by manipulating the data after the fact.  If we drew the “close” population of soils in tight enough, there was a statistical correlation of high soil lead with the incinerator.  If we drew the “close” population further out, as we had originally intended, then there was no correlation.  Students had a difficult time wrestling with this dilemma on both a scientific and a moral basis.  Scientifically the answer was clear: we needed to re-sample on a smaller gridline with a tighter control over our question: What is the contribution of the incinerator to total lead in soil samples?  Ethically, the answer was not so clear.  The semester ended and the data would be compiled and returned to the community group.  The community group had no direct contact with the students; it existed only as an abstract group with a stated political agenda to shut down the incinerator.  Many of the students felt that the data should not be returned to the representatives of the community group, because it would be quite easy to interpret the data to mean that lead had been deposited, if one were fuzzy with the map lines.  Some students felt a sense of ownership of the data, ownership that pre-supposed their technical superiority in interpreting the data, and assumed a propensity to use “scare” science on the part of the community group.  Other students felt that it was up to the community members to do their own data interpretation, and that it was paternalistic to assume that they would make inappropriate choices.

 These student debates highlighted the fact that the student/community collaboration requires manipulation of the course content to specificallyallow for ethical exercises which provide the students a framework within which to make these decisions, expanding the scope of course management on the part of the faculty member.

 Other contextual ethical issues have risen among various classes and their projects.  To what extent are we required to pursue the study?  Should the study be completed to the standard of a peer-reviewed article?  Do we include the community participants as members of that “peer” group?  Are we obligated to confront the image of public science?  “Public” science is the rapid, rational test of a hypothesis.  This type of science has been called “normal” science by Kuhn (1962) and it differs from “private” science which is an imagining or constructing of reality (Popper, 1934).  Does working with the community in order to motivate our undergraduates, mean that we are treating the “community” as means to an end (better education for undergraduates)?     Is there not also some, as yet undefined, responsibility of the community to make efforts to participate fully in the project? Where does this responsibility reside: in the hands of the so-called community activists or in the hands of the individual members of the community association?

 This paper will focus on these contextual ethical problems.

 Professional Guidelines for Contextual Values.

 We begin to address the contextual ethical problems by turning to the Chemists’ Code of Conduct and Academic Professional Guidelines of the American Chemical Society.  Professional codes are set up precisely for the purpose of helping members of the profession to resolve dilemmas: “The Chemists’ Code of Conduct is for the guidance of society members in various professional dealings, especially those involving conflicts of interest.”  A similar statement is made in the Academic Professional Guidelines of the American Chemical Society.  The academic professional guidelines articulate reciprocal responsibilities of professors, undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral associates, and administrators but are silent on the issue of public- or community-based research. 

 The Chemists’ Code of Conduct outlines various responsibilities of the chemist to the public, science of chemistry, chemical profession, employer, employee, students, associates, clients, and environment.   Several of these interactions might describe community-based research.  One could conceive of the community as an “employer” or as a “client” which would imply a fiduciary relationship with the community, one that does not exist given the voluntary nature of the association.  One could consider the community to be  a “student” although this seems tenuous since the “community” has not explicitly agreed to a “student” role with the professor.  The final category that might be relevant is to classify the community collaborators as “the public”.  The Chemists’ Code of Conduct states that “chemists have a professional responsibility to serve the public interest and welfare and to further knowledge of science.  Chemists should actively be concerned with the health and welfare of co-workers, consumers and the community.  Public comments on scientific matters should be made with care and precision, without unsubstantiated, exaggerated, or premature statements.”  The earlier part of this statement suggests that community collaborations should be actively encouraged.  The latter implies that, given the tentative or incomplete nature of the data that we supply to the community (based on a four-month study), no type of community collaboration could be envisioned within the space of a single semester of a class.

 We conclude that the code and guidelines are too vague to be of help in resolving the contextual ethical issues involved in chemical community/collaborative research.  We must use some other source of ethical reasoning to resolve some of the issues raised by community-based research.

Ethical Reflections: Consequentialist Perspective

 We begin by taking a cost/benefit (consequentialist) perspective beginning globally and working back to particular affected parties. 

 The discipline of chemistry can be seen as advancing by the introduction of active science to a new generation of developing scientists (growing scientists?) and by facilitating communication between the public and science that may result in increased funding for science.  This partly assumes that the promotion of education for public understanding of science is good, based upon a (mis)leading  “premise that if we all understand science, we would all make the same decisions” (Harrison, 1986).  In addition, real, defensible data have been obtained, although not as efficiently as in a normal research arena.  Lead has been mapped near an incinerator and a leaded house dust map with isotope ratios has been initiated.  Eventually these results may be publishable.  On the down side one could argue that much more efficient science could be achieved through a normal grant-supported research effort, although funding for such research may be problematic.  Science may also be adversely affected if incomplete data are used for political ends.

 The class is more costly and labor intensive than a traditional course.  Additional resources needed include money, supplies, teaching assistantships, and services/time/teaching  the faculty member would otherwise have devoted to other purposes. Economically the department is better served by placing a full-time professor into a lecture section of 100 tuition-paying students, than into a course with only 10-15 students.  The department potentially loses national recognition as a research institution within the discipline due to less publishable data.   A significant re-direction of energies may occur, which may entail less research productivity/grant funding on the part of the instructor.   In addition, the university may become legally liable if false negatives/positives are reported.

 On the other hand, the department has benefited by being able to justify the cost of maintaining the Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometer used in chemical analysis  (~$10,000/year).  The department has further benefited by external publicity (the class was featured on national prime time t.v.).  The university gains through services provided to its Center for Urban Research and Learning and by a tangible contribution to the university mission statement.

 More particularly affected parties are the undergraduate students, the “community”, and the participating faculty.  We suggest that the undergraduate students have a significantly enriched curriculum; they learn problem-solving better, they better appreciate the analytical skills, and they have a framework in which to learn.   Students learn, some for the first time, the difference between public (that which is reported) and private (that which is carried out in laboratories and recorded in personal notebooks) scientific activity (Aikenhead, 1985; Benson, 1989; Hodson, 1986). This avoids the narrowness of teaching solely “public” science, which can propagate myths about the scientific enterprise (Gauld, 1982).  In addition, there is a very large improvement in the caliber of the written material presented by the students.  There is a testable increase in understanding of the principles of instrumentation and mastery of current literature.  All classes participating in this project have had a rate of 15 to 30% volunteerism (work outside of class or after the semester ends)  associated with the project.  Two years after completion of the first lab, students have begun to return with commentary that indicates this lab was the most important factor in obtaining a job.  One student is currently on a U.N.-sponsored project for monitoring lead pollution in Croatia, a job obtained because of his lab experience here.  One class submitted its results for a national environmental award and won third place.  This has facilitated support within the University for the program.  Finally, it should be noted that these positive indicators have not directly translated into superior course evaluations; TCE (teacher course evaluations) values remain relatively unchanged.

 Negative consequences to the students include a loss of time devoted to traditional subject matter.  “If students sign up for science courses they have a right not to have their science time used for ethics” (Mahowald and Mahowald, 1982; Walters and Zoeller, 1991). Time must be allotted for reflection.   The extent of reflection could be as minimal as a lab on quality control or could include some segment on ethics, as described above for planned ethical activities.  One challenge in encouraging reflection is the fact that each “community” experience is quite different, both on account of the technical question answered and the type of collaborative interaction experienced.   Consequently, the nature of ethical reflection also varies.

 Outcomes for the community group included increased access to some level of scientific expertise.  Given appropriate safeguards, it appears that the community is enriched by the process.  An example is given by the collaboration with After School Action Programs.  ASAP is a network of 30 Chicago community organizations - churches, HUD buildings, and ethnic associations.  The goal of ASAP is to strengthen the capacity of smaller, community organizations to work effectively with youth and children.

 One of ASAP’s most successful projects is Science Seekers, a community-based, hands-on science initiative.  It is a 12-15 week science program that takes place each academic semester at up to 10 sites throughout our urban community. ASAP coordinates curriculum development, recruits and places student interns from local universities, and manages regular field trips and semi-annual Family Science Day celebrations.  ASAP member organizations recruit 10-15 5th and 6th graders, provide space, identify a parent, youth-worker, or other adult to team-teach science curriculum with a university student.  In the fall of 1996 the first two weeks of the project were spent on lead testing.  During these two weeks, youths learned about the presence and dangers of lead in homes, schools, and other structures.  Children also learned how to take samples from their own homes.  Youths gathered a control sample, a sample of an untreated surface, and a sample of a washed surface.  Through this process, children learned not only that lead may be present and that tests can be conducted to test for its presence, but they also learned how samples need to be gathered scientifically and how to present findings to a broader audience.  After the samples were gathered at each site, all 70 youths participated in a field trip to Loyola University to learn about the chemistry of lead and the kinds of machines that analyze the content of the samples.

 Without the assistance of the university and its professors, students, and laboratory equipment, the lead-testing portion of the curriculum may very well have been a learning experience.  But what made the experiment provocative was the hard science to back it up and to turn the experiment into an experience with broad socio-political consequences.  Part of the attraction of this project was that it helped children to determine the safety of their own homes with respect to the presence of lead.  ASAP perceived it to be a wonderful opportunity to address programmatically an important environmental issue that has important public health implications.  Children engaged in a process of discovery, a valuable process since “science learning is of lasting values when the student is motivated by their own curiosity” (Silverman, 1989).

 There are situations in which the community may not benefit.  These may occur when there is a mismatch between community expectations of “public” science and the ability of the undergraduate class to meet those expectations.  The community may have expectations based on a popular view of science that data should be instantaneous, limitless, definitive, and risk free (Mingle, 1989; Covello et al 1991).  This mismatch also occurs with students, but is perhaps a more serious problem with the community collaborators.

  There are costs to the professor associated with these community and undergraduate benefits.  In order to provide valid data to the community group the instructor must personally check all of the lab books and calculations of the students as well as provide a running analysis of the statistical boundaries of the data.  The instructor must either train in or receive the assistance of ethicisits in order to develope the planned ethical reflection portion of the course work.

 The instructor must also take on a new educational “role” with the community.  The interaction with the community group can not simply be viewed as providing a learning experience to the students, for then the group becomes merely a “means”.   Education to the community includes education about the public and private nature of science.   At the initiation of the collaboration, attempts should be made to clarify that “learning” aspect of the collaboration. Data  returned to the community must be accompanied by some assistance in interpretation.  In the case of house dust-sampling, depending upon local law, the children’s parents may have legal and economic responsibility (estimated cost of lead remediation is $15,000/housing unit) thrust upon them based on the findings.  Some interpretations of local law (Hartley, 1995) would require knowledge of lead found in this study to be reported in real estate transactions.   In consideration of these factors, we deliberately designed the dust sampling to illustrate the shift in lead content in the dust when the surface is cleaned by wet mopping methods.  We were able to demonstrate that the lead content in the dust in each individual home diminished from 70 to 100% upon cleaning.  This helped the instructor to fulfill her obligation to the community in a non-threatening way.

 The task of community education is made more demanding by the fact that the situation varies from collaboration to collaboration.  To whom are the materials delivered and how do they get to the larger “community”?  This educational component may be the most problematic in widespread adoption of our model.  It implies a wide expansion of the responsibility of the instructor to become a community educator, not typically part of the job description of a professor of chemistry.  Some of these problems could be solved by establishing a long-term relationship with a local school teacher.  We have yet, however, to find a local school teacher to take this project on as part of their curriculum.  Positive outcomes for the university instructor include a chance to exercise creativity, to learn in a new environment, and to have extended relationships with undergraduates that break the normal classroom boundaries.

 In summary, there are clear benefits to the undergraduate students and the university at large.  There may be benefits to the “community”.  There are corresponding debits on the part of the individual faculty member, the department, and the efficient functioning of science.  On the surface it appears that a simple valuation of costs and benefits would preclude a chemistry professor from organizing this type of “teaching/research” for their classes.  The fact that there is little community-based research at Ph.D.-granting chemistry departments points to the “cost” of this program.  Does this consequentialist argument then doom community-based research in the physical sciences?

Critique of the Consequentalist Argument

 The problem may not be with the task of community-based research itself, but rather with the cost/benefit approach to ethical reasoning.    A cost/benefit analysis assumes a single scale on which all values can be ranked, and that all affected parties create identical lists of consequences.  It further assumes that all moral considerations can be reduced to a cost/benefit analysis, and that the “value” attributed to each consequence will be equivalent even when this is done by different individuals or groups.  This is clearly the case only when those generating the lists have similar backgrounds and commitments.   These assumptions have been broadly criticized.  A full ethical analysis of community-based research needs to consider the possibility of more than one of scale of values (Taylor, 1982), other moral attitudes (commitment to community or to personal integrity)  that did not appear above (Bernard, 1973), and the responsibilities imposed on a person or group when encountering another person or group who is different in fundamental ways (academic research science vs church group community) (Peperzak, 1992).  A full reconsideration of community-based research from such a perspective is too large a task for this article.  We do, however, take a first step by re-examining the relationship between the community and the professor.

A Different Approach

 Weighing the competing interests of “community” vs professor requires that the relationship between the community/layperson and the expert needs to be better defined.  Hardwig (1994) pinpoints the role that “trust” or “faith” plays in the ethics of expertise by describing the steps involved in appealing to authority.  1)  Layperson knows that Expert says proposition2) Layperson has good reason to believe that Expert (unlike Layperson) is in a position to know what would be good reasons to believe proposition and to have the needed reasons.   3)  Layperson believes that Expert is speaking truthfully.   Belief is an important component in community/expert relations.  Even experts are involved in trust within their own field, believing in the integrity of a previous body of knowledge.  Because of this element of trust, the ethics of expertise can not rest on a voluntary relationships among equals embodied in contract theory.  Contract theory assumes each party will look after his own interests equally.  In a non-equal relationship (e.g. expert/layman; budding expert (student)/urban group), the needs of the one surrendering autonomy are given greater weight.   This does not imply that the instructor is morally required to embark upon a sacrificial relationship.  May (1992) says while that social responsibility is not governed by “cost/benefit” systems and that the vulnerability of the dependent person should be given greater weight, he also writes “self-sacrifice is not required to be an integrated professional”.

 How lopsided is the relationship between “community” and “expert”?  How much can the “community” ask from the expert?   If it had become necessary, how could the university have helped the After School Action Program?  While ASAP has important experience in bringing diverse constituencies together to work with youth, ASAP doesn’t have the ability to analyze complicated scientific data.  Should it have become necessary, the political clout and the scientific expertise of the university would have helped in seeking relief from lead poisoning.  ASAP acknowledges that the university is asked to step outside of its normal role of research but suggests that such collaboration is critical when the well-being of the community is at stake.

 This perspective contains two important points.  The After School Action Program has important experience to bring to the table and collaboration is critical when the well-being of our community is at stake.  This suggests that the expert/layperson relationship while not among “equals” is not entirely one sided either.  It may be helpful to view this relationship as similar to the mentoring that goes on between a graduate student and a faculty member.  The faculty member brings ideas, money, and support to the project.  The graduate student, initially, brings labor, but during the development of the relationship moves to become a contributing member of the team who eventually assumes ownership of the research plan.  The community brings an expertise in “living with lead” and in “forming community alliances”.  They are not solely recipients of expertise.  The two-way nature of this relationship is valuable.  May (1996) writes that “mutual (rather than unilateral) vulnerability and dependence is  the hallmark of social relationships like citizenship”.  Such a mutual dependence or  commitment to the common good is linked to community involvement and identification

 This brings us to one final point.  Professionals normally participate in a reward structure  (prestige, grant support, honors) set up by the professional community with which they identify.  The type of expanded responsibility to community education can only be sustained when the academic chemical community supports these efforts.  A change in the professional code should include some definition of community relationships.  Baum has argued forcefully for changes in the engineering code of conduct to begin the process of “public” decision making.  “The strongest argument that engineers and other professionals should play a major and perhaps leading role in making changes to their codes is self-interest.  The code imposes an impossible burden of responsibility on individual engineers (while at the same time usurping the rights of all other affected parties.).....The only morally justifiable procedure for making decisions in complex cases is for all affected parties or delegated representatives to be provided with all of the available information relevant to the decision and for them to have an equitable say in the final decision.” (Baum, 1994).

  We end with a similar plea for a re-examination of the Chemists’ Code of Conduct to explore issues of pro-bono and/or community based research.


This class grew with the interest of several “generations” of Loyola undergraduates.  Funding comes from an Anheuser Busch award in environmental education to the Fall 1995 class and from the Policy Research Action Group’s MacArthur Foundation award.  The ICP-MS is a gift of Chemical Waste Management Corporation and  Loyola University has supported bringing this instrument on-line.  Postdoctoral associate, Dr. Yunlong Wang, and Alanah Fitch’s graduate students Susan Macha, Simona Dragan, Scott Baker, Sean Mellican helped in developing the lab sequence.  Drs. Jameson and Crumrine assisted in the NMR lab.   The 300 MHz NMR was supported by an NSF ILI grant to Dr. Jameson.   Undergraduate Peggy Kalkounos validated the wet-wipe digestion procedure.  Loyola’s Center for Urban Research and Learning has provided an umbrella organization for institutionalizing community/university relationships.  John Knox at the Lead Elimination Action Drive was very helpful.   Karen Croteau worked on developing a children based lead curriculum.  Alanah Fitch is grateful to the University for a semester Fellowship with the Center for Ethics.

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