In the preceding section, we argued for the creation of a comprehensive ethics strategy for ecological research—one that can help address the tensions and outright conflicts that currently persist within the practice of the field. In this section, we suggest a particular ethics strategy. Specifically, we propose some tools that can be useful in an ongoing process of collective ethical reflection by the community of ecological researchers, with the cooperation of applied ethicists and philosophers of biology. Critically, the approach we suggest has the resources to be responsive to the experiences and needs of ecologists, their methods, and the subject matters they study.
Our proposal is based on three preliminary assumptions that we believe to be essential for this project. Furthermore, we believe these assumptions to be both controversial in some academic circles and defensible, thus requiring explicit statement.
First: Ecological research is valuable and worth doing. This is the case even though the research by necessity involves some manipulation of natural systems. Ecologists need to collect organisms, take tissue samples, tag animals, cordon off populations, and undertake a wide variety of other tasks that are disruptive of the ecosystems that exhibit properties of scientific interest. Even purely observational studies almost invariably have some impact on the ecosystem of interest, or an adjacent one. But these intrusions can be, and typically are, justified by the information anticipated from the study.Footnote 5 Ecological research is valuable for a wide range of reasons. Some studies, for example, can lead to better understanding of the behavioral interactions between species and their changing environments, which can very quickly translate into policies regarding land use or road design that protect the observed species. But even ecological studies that are aimed at answering foundational research questions, with apparently no immediate and practical implications, are important for developing the wider theoretical knowledge base that is needed to answer ecological questions of immediate practical import to policy and society.
Second: If a strategy is to be designed to address the ethics of ecological research, it should be developed and stewarded by the community of ecological researchers. The two most pressing reasons for this are that: (a) ecologists possess expertise crucial to the task; and (b) the strategy must be developed and maintained by the ecological community if it is to gain their support, which is crucial for its success.
Some scholars have suggested that the ethics of ecological research might best be implemented by broadening the scope of current animal care committees (Marsh and Kenchington 2004). We believe, however, that this is not feasible for ecological research. Even in the context of animal care, current committee oversight is often poorly suited to the particulars of ecological research. The animal subjects of ecological research are usually from wild populations, which can have special needs that are often better understood by the ecologist conducting the research than the veterinarian on the animal care committee, whose expertise is better suited to domesticated and laboratory animals; furthermore, the subjects are frequently members of species on which veterinarians typically have very little expertise relative to the researchers. Extending the animal care committees’ mandates to the broad range of ethical issues raised by ecological methods (which includes impacts on human communities, non-animal life, and ecosystems) increases this ‘expertise gap’ exponentially. Effective and efficient oversight of the ethical dimensions of ecological research depends critically on the skilled evaluations of ethically savvy ecologists.
Furthermore, having the strategy developed by and for ecologists is the best means of ensuring their support for and willingness to abide by these guidelines (Schwartz 2004). A survey of ecological researchers conducted at the 2013 meeting of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution in Kelowna, B.C. reveals a willingness to be actively involved in the development of such an internally-created, targeted ethics strategy for the profession of ecological research. The most common objection raised at this meeting was that developing an ethics strategy for ecological research would create additional red tape and unfruitful barriers to research—that this initiative risks creating additional burdensome bureaucracy, which would be unwelcome unless it replaced and improved upon existing bureaucracy, such as the guidelines of the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC).Footnote 6 However, the best way to avoid that outcome is to have ecologists themselves at the helm because this avoids the imposition of rules by non-ecologists who may or may not understand the constraints of ecological research.
Third, a strategy designed to address the ethics of ecological research should be committed to remaining agnostic on the subject of whether non-human lives or ecosystems have intrinsic value. The notion of ‘intrinsic value’ refers to the value that something has in and of itself, separate from how it might be useful to or desired by someone. (By contrast, ‘extrinsic value’ refers to the value that something has by virtue of its usefulness or desirability to someone.) Alternatively, an ethics strategy could, at most, affirm the intrinsic value of non-human lives or ecosystems, but it should still refrain from drawing any inferences from that statement regarding the ethical legitimacy of particular practices. We follow Jay Odenbaugh’s (2003) reasoning that assigning intrinsic values to natural objects is epistemologically dubious, and that drawing moral inferences from such claims is liable to be ineffective or even harmful, given that these values cannot reliably be communicated or assumed to be shared among individuals of the same culture, let alone across cultures.Footnote 7
This is not to say that an ethics strategy for ecological research should be entirely neutral with respect to, or free of, values. Rather, the core values should not be set by any individual ethical theory. Instead, the core values will inevitably be overlapping, sometimes in tension with one another, and created through consensus development and instrumental reasoning. This is important because the ethical reasoning of ecologists should be driven by an ongoing process of collective reflection, rather than a static document that claims to provide pat answers, or to tell how to choose between values in situations where they compete. The values that lie at the core of the ethics strategy should, rather, provide a common language—or ‘conceptual tools’—for identifying and reasoning through the salient ethical dimensions of various cases relevant to that profession. We propose a set of core values for ecological research in the next section.
Conceptual Tool—Core Values
We propose six ‘core values’ that can provide the conceptual vocabulary for discussing the ethical aspects of ecological research. An adequate set of core values must be capable of reflecting concerns for the impact of ecological research on both human entities (such as local communities and their members, fellow ecological researchers, conservation managers, and society) and non-human entities (such as species or other taxonomic groups, populations, communities, ecosystems, and the biosphere). To this end, we suggest six principles—three that are better suited to reflect concern for human entities and three better suited for non-human entities. Collectively, these six values have the resources to address all of the ethical concerns relevant to the design and implementation of experiments in ecological research.
The first three values—freedom, fairness, and well being—are derived from Tom Beauchamp and Childress’ (1977) ‘Four Principles of Bioethics’: respect for autonomy (from which we derive freedom), respect for justice (from which we derive fairness), and respect for beneficence and non-malfeasance (from which we derive well-being).Footnote 8 They can be used to analyze the ethical implications of ecological research with respect to human entities, such as those regarding local communities and their members, ecological researchers, and conservation managers.Footnote 9 For instance: consideration of ‘freedom’ might inform an ecological researcher of the need to avoid jeopardizing locally valuable resources without consultation with, and consent from, local communities whose daily activities might depend on these resources (thus, the research might impinge on the freedom of these people); consideration of ‘fairness’ might inform researchers to avoid a gross imbalance in the interests of various parties effected by their research (for example, it might indicate a need to favor the interests of a less privileged group over a more empowered one); and consideration of ‘well-being’ might inform researchers regarding a ‘duty to warn’ or inform stakeholders and environmental decision-makers of their findings. While there is overlap between the applications of the values, these three are sufficiently exhaustive to permit articulation of all the ethical implications of ecological research for human entities.
The second three values—replacement, reduction, and refinement—are analogous, but not identical, to the ‘Three Rs’ of humane animal treatment, developed by Russell and Burch (1959) to guide the ethical design of research projects involving animal test subjects. In animal research ethics, ‘replacement’ refers to a preference for methods that use non-animal subjects; ‘reduction’ refers to a preference for methods that use fewer animal subjects; and ‘refinement’ refers to a preference for methods that cause less suffering and distress to animal subjects. Interestingly, ecosystem level manipulations are rarely (if ever) required to undergo any scrutiny by animal ethics committees because there are no direct animal welfare considerations, yet ecosystem level manipulations clearly have impacts on individuals and populations. These three principles related to animal research ethics will be tailored to apply to a broader range of entities than the non-human animals that are directly subjects of experimentation. Instead, it will be used to analyze the ethical implications of ecological research with respect to non-human biological entities such as individual organisms, species (or other taxonomic groups), populations, communities, ecosystems, and the biosphere. For instance: consideration of ‘replacement’ might direct ecological researchers to use simulations or natural experiments where appropriate; consideration of ‘reduction’ would guide them to minimize impacts of research on the ecosystem(s) under study; and consideration of ‘refinement’ might lead them to collaborate in order to streamline efforts.
An alternative set of core values has been proposed by ASTEC (1998) in the context of research in high-risk ecosystems. ASTEC recommends that the ‘Precautionary Principle’ should constrain all ecological research, and that within those limitations ecologists should design experiments according to four maxims: ‘movement,’ which refers to a preference for locating experiments away from sensitive ecosystems; ‘minimization,’ which refers to a preference for experiments with fewer observations where statistical significance can still be preserved; ‘modification,’ which refers to a preference for experiments that have been adapted to minimize impact on ecosystems; and ‘maximizing,’ which refers to a preference for experiments where the scientific output is as significant as possible.
Although it has been suggested that ASTEC’s conceptual system should be extended to all ecological research, we contend that our approach is preferable. While there is significant overlap between our six values and these 4Ms, ours are superior because they take into account the impact of ecological research on human entities, which is crucial to the evaluation of many ecological research projects. To illustrate, endangered species legislation in many jurisdictions can limit private property development, and backlash from local communities can limit research that ecologists can conduct. For example, a study of an endangered species of snake on Pelee Island, Ontario, was recently rejected by town council due to fears that that the discovery of the snake on private property would prevent economically important development (Jacqueline Litzgus, personal communication). Thus, the 4Ms are insufficient to evaluate all the relevant ethical implications of ecological research.
Furthermore, while the Precautionary Principle might be pertinent to research in high-risk ecosystems (although we suspect that there are considerable challenges in that domain, as well), it is not easy to apply to ecological research in general. Consider a study to assess the effects of an increasingly common environmental pollutant on an increasingly rare (though not yet officially ‘endangered’) amphibian, where the only way to assess the danger to that species involves exposing many of them to the toxin. On the one hand, the Precautionary Principle might be used to advocate that the study is impermissible because of potential harms to existing amphibians; on the other hand it might be used to advocate that the study is permissible if the study can help, in the long term, to save that species from extinction. This kind of tension between parallel and conflicting applications of the Precautionary Principle are not uncommon in ecological research, and they are bound to become more pressing as anthropogenic damage to the ecosystem escalates. Our approach would do better because it will be able to give guidance under varying conditions of uncertainty without simply, and possibly inappropriately, shifting the burden of proof to the individual ecological researcher to justify why their field study is not at all harmful.
We contend that the six core values above can provide the conceptual vocabulary necessary for an ongoing process of collective ethical reflection regarding the ethics of ecological research. In practice, they are likely to evolve over time as they are applied in consultation with ecologists to a variety of case studies. It is our anticipation that, as they are refined, a new set of values suited specifically for ecological research will emerge.
Analytic Tool—Decision Theory
The core set of values will not be sufficient to constitute the foundation of an ethics strategy for ecological research. In addition, a procedure is needed by which guidance or advice regarding ethical field study design can be developed. Any such procedure should seek to empirically ground its analysis in the practical experiences of working ecologists. We propose a decision theoretic method that can serve as a practical means for achieving this goal.
Decision theory, broadly speaking, is the theory of human decisions through the lens of rational strategy optimization, given the presence of uncertainties, values, and (in some cases) psychological limitations. It provides an approach to decision-making that allows for the use of formal (mathematical) algorithms to derive optimal solutions (or derive proof of the absence of optimal solutions) to certain decision-making problems. We have selected the decision-theoretic approach to policy choice due to its power and effectiveness across a broad class of types of decisions.
More specifically, the decision theoretic software 1000Minds offers a ready-made, online survey program that is well suited to the task of helping ecological researchers to collectively rank a broad range of alternative scenarios stemming from value-laden decisions. 1000Minds was developed for prioritizing policy alternatives regarding healthcare (Neogi et al. 2010; Golan et al. 2011; Golan and Hansen 2012; Hansen et al. 2012), and it has been adapted to a wide variety of subjects (Ruhland 2006; Christofferson 2007; Noseworthy et al. 2009; Boyd et al. 2011; Smith and Fennessy 2011; Byrne et al. 2012). It is grounded upon multi-criteria decision analysis (also known as ‘conjoint analysis’), according to which, by presenting people with a series of decisions regarding pair-wise trade-offs, reliable predictions can be made about their relative objectives and values on particular subjects (Debreu 1960; Luce and Tukey 1964; Green and Srinivasan 1990; Green et al. 2001). This software has been used in over one hundred published studies across a variety of fields and subject matter. The algorithm at the core of this software makes use of the ‘transitivity property,’ which justifies the inference that, if a subject prefers A to B and B to C, then that subject also prefers A to C (Hansen and Ombler 2008).
To illustrate how 1000Minds could assist in assessing the ethical priorities of ecological researchers, a survey can be designed that includes the following five factors that are relevant to the design of an ethically sound field study:
How much does it harm non-human animals?
How disruptive is it of local ecosystems?
How disruptive is it of local human communities?
How likely is it that it will confound future ecological field studies?
How likely is it to significantly contribute to scientific knowledge?
These are not the only factors relevant to the value of a particular field study. Others include, but are not limited to, the likeliness of effectively training graduate students and the possibility that academic dishonesty (such as ‘fudging the data’) is taking place. The survey can, in principle, involve as many or few factors as necessary to obtain meaningful results.
In each stage of the survey, participants will be asked to compare two hypothetical field studies with different outcomes (low, medium, or high) on two of the six criteria. Based on the results of each selection, software will automatically fill in values for choices that can be inferred, by the principle of transitivity, from the previous selections of the person being surveyed. Thus, it is possible to obtain a complete ranking of all possible pairs of hypothetical field studies without having the surveyed person perform each ranking manually.
For example, the survey might ask an ecologist to choose which of the following two field studies is more ethical:
Field Study A
Field Study B
If the ecologist chooses A as the most ethical field study, the software will automatically infer that the ecologist would choose C over D in the following comparison:
Field Study C
Field Study D
Once a participant has completed a survey, 1000Minds will provide an analysis of how important she evaluates each of the five factors to be, and by how much. As more ecologists complete the survey, their evaluations can be compiled, and can even be sorted by other criteria, depending on the information requested from the surveyed ecologists (such as field of specialization or geographical location).
The main benefits of this method are that it is empirical, it is easy to implement, and it is verifiable. That is, a survey can be conducted of hundreds of ecological researchers; then, a representative sub-set of these researchers can be assembled into a focus group that vigorously debates each ranking. The results of the survey can then be compared to the results of the focus group to determine the degree of correspondence. Of additional benefit, this method can be periodically reiterated with very little cost to the individual researchers.
Furthermore, the results of the survey can be easily translated into a weighted list of priorities that ecological researchers can use as a ‘checklist’ to evaluate the ethical ‘goodness’ of particular studies. One benefit of this is that it can then help them to identify small, easy modifications that they can make to studies they propose, but which can have a significant impact on the ethical ramifications of the experiment. Additionally, it can help ecologists to efficiently make more difficult choices in the face of contentious ethical dilemmas by informing their decisions with the values collectively identified by their relevant research community.
To illustrate, we return to a hypothetical version of Example II: the milkweed translocation field study, where the ecologist can choose between leaving the gardens intact after the experiment or spraying the gardens with herbicide. Imagine he is relatively indifferent between the two options, but is leaning towards leaving the gardens intact to save time. On checking the ‘weighted list’ of desiderata in ethical field study design, however, he notices that choosing the herbicide option will drastically increase the ‘ethics score’ of his study; this is because the community of ecologists have collectively determined that translocation experiments that are minimally disruptive to local ecosystems contribute 5 ethics points toward the ‘ethics’ score, as opposed to only 2 points for studies that are disruptive to a medium degree, and also that studies earn 6 points if they have a negligible likelihood of confound future ecological field studies and only 1 point if this likelihood is medium. By using the herbicide, therefore, the ecologist can increase the field study’s ethics score by 8 points. Consequently, he chooses to spray the gardens with herbicide.
Similarly, we return to a hypothetical version of Example I: the bighorn sheep and the cougar, which is more ethically contentious. Imagine the research team is torn between trying to hunt the cougar and not; however, on checking how this decision will affect the ‘ethics score’ of the study, they notice that by hunting the cougar they significantly increase their points value on the criterion of ‘likely significant contribution to scientific knowledge,’ whereas by not hunting the cougar they do not significantly increase their points value on the criterion of ‘harm to non-human animals’ (for the sake of argument, because there is only one cougar compared with the population of sheep that will be saved). The team could, in this case, use this information to guide and ground a decision to hunt the cougar.