Sunday, February 27, 2011

Virtues of Research

A university required all faculty members to complete a short, online course on ethics prior to their pursuit of research funding, and one faculty member in the architecture school refused to do so because he saw the course as irrelevant to his work and a waste of his time. He, nevertheless, pursued research funding and the administrators in his school had to decide whether to let him do so or not.

We often associate research with the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries and the industrial revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries. But research depends around an idea that dates back to the ancient Greeks: that ethical actions stem from the virtue of those engaged in the activity. While we may value research according to its consequences – did it result in new knowledge or a useful discovery? – we also depend upon researchers’ integrity, honesty, and fairness in order to trust their conclusions.

The research community has put in place mechanisms to ensure trustworthy conclusions. The anonymous or “blind” review of a scientific paper by peers prior to its publication and the replication of a scientific experiment by others to see if the same outcomes occur represent two effective ways of catching unreliable or unverifiable results. A third, relevant to the situation here, involves insisting that researchers understand and adhere to the highest ethical standards.

Some in the architectural community have discounted the relevance of this to their work. For some, architecture entails the speculation upon future possibilities rather than the discovery of facts about the world as it exists. The “truth” of a speculation rests upon its ability to convince people of its value, not upon its verifiability. Meanwhile others have questioned the objectivity of all human activity, science included. This more-radical idea doesn’t distinguish between design and science, but instead sees a degree of subjectivity and cultural relativity in both.

Such arguments, however, do not diminish the role of virtue: in even the most subjective or speculative work, integrity, honesty, and fairness matter. Nor do the virtues essential to research end there. The cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice also apply: research demands the use of good judgment or prudence, a temperate sense of balance and reasonable limits, the fortitude to keep pursuing a promising idea despite setbacks or unexpected results, and a just concern that the results have widespread benefits.

The so-called theological virtues of faith, hope, charity, and love also have relevance to research. Although we often think of science and faith as sharply divided, researchers have to have a degree of faith in the value of their work and hope in its ultimate success. At the same time, they have to love what they do, given the long hours devoted to their pursuits, and to have a charitable respect for the work of others. In research, as in all creative activity, we cannot entirely disconnect good work from the goodness of the people doing it.

Which brings us to the faculty member who refuses to complete the online exercise on ethics in order to compete for research funding. At one level, this represents a contractual as much as an ethical issue: when we accept employment we also agree to follow the rules of our employers, however much we may dislike them. At another level, the faculty member’s refusal to take the course raises serious questions about his prudence and temperance, and suggests that his superiors would be wise to prohibit him from pursuing funded research for which he seems temperamentally ill suited.

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