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RCR Casebook: Social Responsibility

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The topic of social responsibility examines the relationship of researchers to the common good, to the larger society in which research is funded, conducted, and applied.47 However, only recently have the social responsibilities of researchers garnered significant attention in RCR curricula   compared to other instructional priorities.  A 2008 consensus panel of experts in RCR instruction, echoing sentiments expressed by several leaders in the field since the early 1990’s, recommended adding “social responsibilities” to the list of “core instruction areas” and in 2010 NIH added it to recommended content areas for RCR instruction.6,47,48

While some have referred to the responsibility of scientists as citizens vs. scientists as scientists,48 others believe that social responsibilities must be shouldered not only by individual researchers, but also by the professional organizations and research institutions to which they belong.3,47

While no authoritative list of researchers’ social responsibilities exists, building on the work of Ken Pimple,47 we offer the following tentative set of topics and questions as a starting point for reflection: research priorities, fiscal responsibilities, public service, public education, advocacy, environmental impact, and forbidden knowledge.49,50

Sieber has referred to the responsible conduct of research as a form of “enlightened self interest” because researchers are unlikely to succeed long-term when they behave irresponsibly.27  Given the extent to which researchers depend upon public support for science—in the form of public research dollars, subsidization of higher education, and willingness to serve as research participants—expanding the focus of research ethics to include responsibilities to the common good seems also to fall under the rubric of enlightened self interest. In this sense, the social responsibilities of researchers may influence—albeit indirectly—the quality of research and sit squarely within the scope of research ethics.

The Cases and Role Play

The cases and role play in this chapter address some important issues that arise all too frequently in research.

  • Case One:  A junior faculty member supervising two graduate students conducting qualitative interviews on domestic violence discovers that they are presenting conclusions that are not supported by the data but rather support their social advocacy agenda.
  • Case Two: A postdoctoral researcher contemplates taking a high-paying job despite the fact that the pharmaceutical company’s research conflict with his social convictions.
  • Case Three: A postdoctoral fellow has a breakthrough in her research but then realizes that, if fallen into the wrong hands, could have significant harmful implications for society.
  • Role Play: A researcher, who wants to apply for a modest-sized grant to gather baseline data on health behavior in the local Latino community, gets taken to task by his department chair for not padding his research budget enough to benefit the department.