How a Neuroscientist Is Bringing Awareness of Professional Ethics to STEM | Stephanie J. B...

STEM workers hold the power to create vital and innovative changes not just for their industries, but society as a whole. However, ethics and conduct hold equal weight, and improper professionalism can have sizeable impacts. That’s why consultants like Dr. Stephanie Bird have worked to ensure young STEM up-and-comers are trained to handle both their work, and the ethical responsibility that comes with it.

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Stephanie Bird Neuroscientist

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are some of the most powerful tools humankind has. Every moment of every day, game-changing breakthroughs — some previously unimaginable — are made in medicine, biology, and countless other disciplines that help drive society in its ever-evolving march.

However, in the eyes of professionals like neuroscientist and ethics consultant Dr. Stephanie J. Bird, viewing STEM as just data and research with no attention to their societal impacts or ethical implications holds disastrous possibilities. 

“So often, until relatively recently, people would talk about science as if there weren’t any values related to the science,” Dr. Bird recalled. “That was a fallacy, but it certainly was one that was widely held within and outside the scientific community. ‘Science and data are objective’ was the way that they were presented.”

“The reality is that there are values interwoven in the science and the assumptions that researchers bring to their work. It’s very important that we make those assumptions explicit because if you just make an assumption and everybody shares the same assumptions, but never recognizes or examines them, then it’s hard to correct the problems that some science and technology produce.”

“If you make clear through discussion what the ethical values are that are embedded in both the science and how it’s being used, then it makes it possible to see problems and then figure out ways to address them, with luck, before they get out of hand.”

“We’re all part of a larger community, and so the interactions that people have, and the different perspectives they bring to their discussions, have common, shared roots. This, in turn, has an impact on how members of a team, or people in the same field, understand both what’s going on, and what they themselves are contributing to the whole. Sometimes, like beauty, one’s contribution ‘is in the eye of the beholder.'”

Dr. Bird’s expertise in professional ethics comes from years of experience, both as a scientist and as an editor. In addition to her years of work at MIT’s Neurosciences Research Program (an off-campus think tank), as an educator, and as Special Assistant to the Provost at MIT, she also co-founded the journal Science and Engineering Ethics and served as its co-editor-in-chief for over two decades.

The journal is now in its 27th year of publication. You’d have to go back all the way to her college years to see the start of her passionate interest in ethics, when a philosophy course changed her mindset and career path.

The fields of research ethics and engineering ethics have grown substantially, with attention now on both the workplace, and the ethical, legal and social policy implications of research findings and their applications in the wider world. “Initially, the focus was on ethical problems that arose in the workplace such as the fabrication or falsification of data, and conflicts of interest that can influence the understanding and interpretation of data and their appropriate application.”

Also early on, it became apparent that it is important to recognize and give appropriate credit to people for their work and their ideas. A team of diverse individuals, each with their different perspectives, can be extremely helpful and productive in developing constructive theories, and in identifying problems and their solutions, and in overcoming obstacles. At the same time, and as a result, “recognizing contributions can be challenging because, often the source of ideas is much more complicated than what people think.” 

Stephanie Bird Neuroscientist

“The scientific community needs to be proactive with respect to misuses of their science, speaking up when it’s being overgeneralized by policy-makers, or when it’s being misrepresented or misinterpreted.”

Stephanie Bird Neuroscientist

So, what are examples of socially irresponsible behavior involving science? Dr. Bird touched on a number of incidents that would undoubtedly fall into this category, such as research scientists who worked for tobacco companies investigating which compounds in tobacco can be enriched in cigarettes to make them more addictive, with the obvious effect of identifying how best to produce addicted smokers.

In contrast, the scientific community has considered, and continues to reflect on and investigate, the environmental impacts of the free release of genetically modified organisms, as well as the environmental impacts of other products of technology such as plastics and synthetic pharmaceuticals. While researchers may not be responsible for unethical actions in certain cases, she stressed that they still can and should play an important role in bringing abuses to light, regardless of where the blame lies.

Dr. Bird emphasized that, while the study of ethics has always been a valuable component of a complete education, it has become increasingly necessary in the training of the next generation of researchers as the pressures of competition and potential financial opportunities have increased, and as egregious instances of misconduct and problematic impacts of science and technology have become more apparent.

“Before, students were just learning lab techniques and scientific concepts. Now, we want to highlight for trainees — and in the process, their junior and senior colleagues — the kinds of ethical values that we are conveying, either intentionally or not, and the impacts of our work, whether research findings or technical developments, and thinking more carefully about the impact of that work on society both now and down the line.”

“It is that kind of interaction, both for the faculty and for the trainees, that helps them to understand that science isn’t value-free, that there are unconscious assumptions, values and expectations inherent in what we do, how we think about the issues, and how we address scientific problems.”

However, as with any lesson in life, to effectively teach the concepts of ethical research and conduct, you cannot leave out real-world circumstances that allow possible actions to be viewed in the moment. “It’s important to have examples of misconduct, but you really want people to be thinking about potential problems, situations, and the possible consequences of various choices well before misconduct happens.”

In order not only to ensure that the ethics are properly taught, but to examine where scientists’ thinking may lie in regards to proceeding in certain situations, interactive case discussions were brought to the table at institutions like MIT. The discussions involve bringing together faculty, postdoctoral trainees and students, who examine a case where there is a problem or tension, but where it is not so clear whether there is actual misconduct like cheating or lying, or other unethical behavior going on.

According to Dr. Bird, the sessions aid in shedding additional light on participants’ responses through open debate. While one participant might state that the solution to an ethical problem is obvious, a deeper dive by colleagues into their statement or solution can suggest that circumstances are not as cut and dried as presumed. 

Dr. Bird is one of many women leading the way in STEM, having been heavily involved with the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) for many years. She’s operated in roles ranging from president of the New England chapter all the way to president of the national AWIS organization in Washington, D.C. During that time, the organization was able to secure a grant from the Sloan Foundation to develop mentoring programs for women in science.

A variety of strategies, activities, and programs to promote, facilitate and reward mentoring were developed and implemented through the AWIS chapters and the number of chapters increased by 50% (from 33 to 49) over the three-year duration of the mentoring project. “That really highlighted the need that’s out there for women to not just [be] interested and recruited to science, but [be] retained, pursue a career in science and [be] able to contribute their skills, perspective, and expertise on an ongoing basis.”

Stephanie Bird Neuroscientist

“When people don’t recognize [biases], you really need to develop specific, explicit strategies for setting those biases aside, or getting around them.”

Stephanie Bird Neuroscientist

Even with the contributions of AWIS and other individuals and organizations, in STEM the difference in participation between men and women — as well as other underrepresented groups —continues to be stark, even in a more progressive world. “Physics and chemistry have had significantly fewer women at the upper levels, and that still is the case. That’s fascinating and frustrating to me because this was an obvious problem 40 years ago and we still see the same kinds of problems, issues, and obstacles.”

Implicit bias remains an unfortunate hindrance in the slow advancement of a diversified field. “Recently, there was a news story about research being done on the Hubble telescope, and the fact that until the research proposals were made anonymous, the funding went much more to white men than to women or any of the other underrepresented groups.”

“Once they started to anonymize the proposer, and focus entirely on the content of the proposal, then more women than men were being funded to do research on the telescope.” Indeed, the year before the alteration began, the proposal success rate for women was about half of that for men, i.e., the proposal success rates for women and men sat at 13% and 24%, respectively.

The updated process resulted in a more equitable success rate with an 8.7% rate for women and an 8% rate for men. Though Dr. Bird acknowledged it’s frustrating that the issues still remain, they are gaining more visibility in and outside of the STEM community.

There are certainly positives to be found: the recruiting and hiring of women in STEM has seen improvement in the past several decades, going from 8% of total STEM workers in 1970 to 27% in 2019. However, Dr. Bird believes it’s the retention after the fact that has continued to be disappointing. “Even once you hire people, I think it’s incredibly important to make sure that people are clear and explicit about what’s expected and what’s a realistic expectation on the part of both the worker and the employer.”

“We just really need to be much more encouraging of young people to pursue the things that interest them. That will make it better for all of us.”

Dr. Bird believes it’s important to realize and acknowledge that the circumstances of your birth — from your parents and teachers to your educational system and health — are part of the luck that is central to one’s success in life.

“I think that most everybody will see that luck, good and bad, has played an important role in how they got to where they are. Certainly they had to work at it, they had to take the opportunities when they found them, but the reality is that knowing when you have an opportunity to take advantage of, and being able to take advantage of it is, in part, having the good luck of being trained to do that.”

Time and time again, Dr. Bird has noticed that the notion that seeing “people that look like you” in a particular career is often stressed.  However, while having a good role model can be helpful, it is not as important as thoughtful mentors who can share what they have learned from their own experience. “I think back to when I decided to pursue science, I would never have thought of a role model as essential,” she explained. When her own career began, Dr. Bird didn’t concern herself too much with the fact that there weren’t many women scientists – instead, it was enough that she saw that people working as science professionals “were people just like I was a person.”

“I think that focusing on the ways in which you’re different can be counterproductive. So I would like to encourage women, or anyone pursuing a career, to focus on what they’re bringing to it, and not who else is in that field.” In her mind, that motivation would benefit society as a whole.

Stephanie Bird Neuroscientist

“I think that it’s critically important for people being mentored, that they take the advice they get, not as the golden password, but actually for what it is, which is the distillation of experience that someone else has that you don’t.”

Stephanie Bird Neuroscientist

Dr. Bird also stressed the importance of mentorship for young, inspiring STEM innovators. Seeking out mentors, as well as recognizing the areas of knowledge they have that you are lacking, can certainly put trainees on the right track towards a brighter future.

Dr. Bird feels that you shouldn’t unquestioningly accept the advice as “the be all and the end-all.” Rather, you need to consider a mentor’s input in the context of your own values and goals. “People tend to think that they have to accept whatever advice they’ve been given,” she said. “And mentors think the same way – that the mentee needs to do what they suggest, although that’s simply not the case. Keeping that in mind will ultimately result in a more rewarding and meaningful learning experience for both.”

If you’re finding yourself wanting to read more about the ethics surrounding current developments in STEM, you can view the latest issues of the journal Science and Engineering Ethics here.

Additionally, the results of the AWIS Mentoring Project were published in “Mentoring Means Future Scientists: a Guide to Developing Mentoring Programs Based on the AWIS Mentoring Project,” and the organization also published “A Hand Up: Women Mentoring Women in Science” to supplement the one-on-one mentoring experience. To learn more about the AWIS’ history and endeavors, you can visit its website here.