Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 51–73 | Cite as

Ethics in the Minutiae: Examining the Role of the Physical Laboratory Environment in Ethical Discourse

  • Louise BezuidenhoutEmail author
Original Paper


Responsibility within life science research is a highly scrutinised field. Increasingly, scientists are presented with a range of duties and expectations regarding their conduct within the research setting. In many cases, these duties are presented deontologically, forgoing extensive discussion on how these are practically implemented into the minutiae of daily research practices. This de-contextualized duty has proven problematic when it comes to practical issues of compliance, however it is not often considered as a fundamental aspect of building ethics discourse. This paper examines this issue in detail, particularly focusing on how differences in the contrasts between the ideal and real physical research environments cause conceptual problems for scientists and retard ethical engagement. Such issues are particularly pertinent in low- and middle-income countries. This paper combines theoretical and empirical analyses using the concept of “dual-use” as a focalizing topic. The data show that the research environment acts as an intimate component in the interpretation and implementation of ethical actions.


Life science ethics Empirical ethics Bioethics Research environments Low- and middle-income countries Ethics pedagogy Africa 



The author would like to thank Prof Brian Rappert and Dr Mariana Wilson-Kovacs for their valuable comments on the manuscript, as well as Dr Brian Balmer for additional advice. The fieldwork presented in this paper was sponsored by a Grant from the Wellcome Trust.

Conflict of interest

There is no known conflict of interest.


  1. Anderson, M. S., Horn, A. S., Risbey, K. R., Ronning, E. A., De Vries, R., & Martinson, B. C. (2007a). What do mentoring and training in the responsible conduct of research have to do with scientists’ misbehavior? Findings from a national survey of NIH-funded scientists. Academic Medicine, 82(9), 853–860.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson, M. S., & Louis, K. S. (1994). The graduate student experience and subscription to the norms of science. Research in Higher Education, 35, 273–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Anderson, M. S., Ronning, E. A., de Vries, R., & Martinson, B. C. (2007b). The perverse effects of competition on scientists’ work and relationships. Science and Engineering Ethics, 13, 437–461.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bezuidenhout, L. (2012). Research infrastructures, policies and the “web of prevention”: The ethical implications of inadequate research environments. Medicine, Conflict and Survival, 28(1), 19–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Chambliss, D. F. (1996). Beyond caring: Hospitals, nurses, and the social organization of ethics . London: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  6. Christakis, D. A., & Feudtner, C. (1993). Ethics in a short white coat: The ethical dilemmas that medical students confront. Academic Medicine, 68, 249–254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Clarkeburn, H., Downie, J. R., & Matthew, B. (2002). Impact of an ethics programme in a life science curriculum. Teaching in Higher Education, 7(1), 65–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Clevestig, P. (2009). Handbook of applied biosecurity for life science laboratories . Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.Google Scholar
  9. Feudtner, C., Christakis, D. A., & Christakis, N. A. (1994). Do clinical clerks suffer ethical erosion? Students’ perceptions of their ethical environment and personal development. Academic Medicine, 69(8), 670–679.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Fine, J. C. (2007). Investing in STI in Sub-Saharan Africa: Lessons from collaborative initiatives in research and higher education. In Global forum: Building science, technology and innovation capacity for sustainable growth and poverty reduction (pp. 13–15). Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  11. Hart, H. L. A. (2008). Punishment and responsibility: Essays in the philosophy of law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Heimer, C. A. (2012). Wicked’ ethics: Compliance work and the practice of ethics in HIV research. Social Science & Medicine. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.10.030.
  13. Hundert, E. M., Hafferty, F. W., & Christakis, D. (1996). Characteristics of the informal curriculum and trainees’ ethical choices. Academic Medicine, 71(6), 624–633.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Institute of Medicine. (2002). Integrity in scientific research. Washington, DC: Institute of Medicine and National Research Council.Google Scholar
  15. Katongole-Mbidde, E. (2008). Promoting biosafety and biosecurity within the life sciences. In Promoting biosafety and biosecurity within the life sciences: An International workshop in East Africa. Kampala, Uganda: Uganda National Academy of Science.Google Scholar
  16. Korenman, S. G., Berk, R., Wenger, N. S., et al. (1998). Evaluation of the research norms of scientists and administrators responsible for academic research integrity. Journal of the American Medical Association, 279(1), 41–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Kuhlau, F., Eriksson, S., Evers, K., & Hoglund, A. T. (2008). Taking due care: Moral obligations in dual use research. Bioethics, 22(9), 477–487.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Ladd, J. M., Lappe, M. D., McCormick, J. B., Boyce, A. M., & Cho, M. K. (2009). The “how” and “whys” of research: Life scientists’ views of accountability. Journal of Medical Ethics, 35, 762–767.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1986). Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Martinson, B. C., Anderson, M. S., Crain, A. L., & de Vries, R. (2005). Scientists’ perceptions of organizational justice and self-reported misbehaviors. Journal of Empirical Research of Human Research Ethics, 1, 51–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Maxwell, J. C. (2003). There’s no such thing as “Business” ethics. New York: Center Street.Google Scholar
  22. Miller, S., & Selgelid, M. J. (2007). Ethical and philosophical considerations of the dual-use dilemma in the biological sciences. Science and Engineering Ethics, 13, 523–580.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Mitcham, C. (2003). Co-responsibility for research integrity. Science and Engineering Ethics, 9, 273–290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. NRC. (2011). Challenges and opportunities for education about dual-use issues in the life sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.Google Scholar
  25. NSABB. (2006). Globalization, biosecurity and the future of the life sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.Google Scholar
  26. Pellegrino, E. D. (2007). Professing medicine, virtue based ethics and the retrieval of professionalism. In R. L. Walker & P. J. Ivanhoe (Eds.), Working virtue: Virtue ethics and contemporary moral problems. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Rappert, B. (2007). Education for the life sciences: Choices and challenges. In B. Rappert & C. McLeish (Eds.), A web of prevention. London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
  28. Rappert, B., McLeish, C. (Eds.) (2007b). A web of prevention. Biological weapons, life sciences and the governance of research. London, Earthscan.Google Scholar
  29. Sture, J. (2010). Private morals and public ethics: Cultural aspects of moral development and ethical learning in the scientific context. Canberra, Australia: Promoting Dual-Use Ethics Workshop.Google Scholar
  30. Traweek, S. (1988). Beamtimes and lifetimes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Treviño, L. K. (1986). Ethical decision-making in organizations: A person-situation interactionist model. Academy of Management Review, 11, 195–230.Google Scholar
  32. Treviño, L. K., & Youngblood, S. A. (1990). Bad apples in bad barrels: A causal analysis of ethical decision-making behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 75, 378–385.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. WHO. (2004). Laboratory biosafety manual. Geneva: World Health Organisation.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology, Philosophy and AnthropologyUniversity of ExeterExeterUK
  2. 2.Department of Philosophy, WITS Centre for Ethics (WiCE)University of WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa

Personalised recommendations