We must remain committed to scientific integrity

27 February 2012

During the third week of February our global community of Earth and space scientists witnessed the shocking fall from grace of an accomplished AGU member who betrayed the principles of scientific integrity. In doing so he compromised AGU’s credibility as a scientific society, weakened the public’s trust in scientists, and produced fresh fuel for the unproductive and seemingly endless ideological firestorm surrounding the reality of the Earth’s changing climate.

Peter Gleick resigned as chair of AGU’s Task Force on Scientific Ethics on 16 February, prior to admitting in a blog post that he obtained documents from the Heartland Institute under false pretenses. His transgression cannot be condoned, regardless of his motives. It is a tragedy that requires us to stop and reflect on what we value as scientists and how we want to be perceived by the public. Here are a few things that come immediately to mind:

  • The success of the scientific enterprise depends on intellectual rigor, truthfulness, and integrity on the part of everyone involved. The vast majority of scientists uphold these values every day in their work. That’s why opinion polls show that public trust in scientists is among the highest of all professions. Public trust is essential because it provides the foundation for society’s willingness to invest in scientific exploration and discovery. It is the responsibility of every scientist to safeguard that trust.
  • As a community of scientists, we must hold each other to the highest ethical standards. This is why AGU established its Task Force on Scientific Ethics, in 2011, to review and update existing policies and procedures for dealing with scientific misconduct. Long before the Heartland incident, we recognized the need to have clear and broad principles and procedures that expressed the value of scientific integrity and ethics embodied in our new strategic plan. More than ever, AGU needs a clear set of guidelines that encompasses the full range of scientific activities our members engage in. The task force, now under the leadership of Linda Gundersen, director of the Office of Science Quality and Integrity at the U.S. Geological Survey, will complete its work with a renewed sense of urgency in view of recent events. Union leadership will ensure that these standards of ethical conduct are widely communicated to the membership and that they become an integral part of AGU’s culture.
  • All of this must be done with an eye to the future and to nurturing the next generation of Earth and space scientists. Today’s students must learn, especially through the example of senior scientists, that adherence to high standards of scientific integrity applies in all that we do: from research practices, to peer-reviewed publications, to interactions with colleagues, and to engaging with the public and policy makers. The lofty goal we set for ourselves of providing benefit to society through our research can be achieved only if we pursue our mission with the utmost honesty, transparency, and rigor.

This has been one of the most trying times for me as president of AGU, as it has been for many AGU volunteer leaders, members, and staff. How different it is than celebrating the news of a new discovery or a unique scholarly achievement. These rare and sad occasions remind us that our actions reverberate through a global scientific community and that we must remain committed as individuals and as a society to the highest standards of scientific integrity in the pursuit of our goals.

Mike McPhaden