An Interdisciplinary Approach to Understanding Ethical Cultures in STEM

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Drs. Eric Baumer and Alison Mickel


Just as there is no universal process of knowledge production in scientific settings – and instead there are “epistemic cultures” (Knorr-Cetina, 1999) – there is no single approach to ethics training and ethical scientific practice. Formal education about scientific ethics occurs in a variety of forms, from codes of ethics among professional societies, to undergraduate and graduate STEM education. Meanwhile, day-to-day interactions in laboratories play a major but under-studied role in ethics training. Individual research groups vary, and the conversations, comportment, hierarchies, and physical arrangements inside a laboratory foster different ethics concepts and practices.

This project will utilize an interdisciplinary, mixed-methods approach to examine how the cultures of particular research groups inculcate contrasting approaches to ethics. Specifically, we will apply perspectives from anthropology, rhetoric, and computer science to reveal how approaches to ethics are shaped by the day-to-day interactions that take place in laboratories. Doing so will contribute an important and underrepresented perspective to academic discourse around ethics in STEM. Furthermore, this work will provide preliminary results for an NSF grant proposal, such as the Ethical and Responsible Research (ER2) program or the Cyber-Human Systems (CHS) program. Thus, the primary goal for this project is to demonstrate the viability and value of our interdisciplinary approach.


Plan for Proposed Work

Interviews will be conducted with members of one STEM lab on Lehigh’s campus. In previous conversations, Prof. Paolo Bocchini in Civil and Environmental Engineering indicated a willingness to participate in this work. We choose to focus on a single lab for this project, as it is meant to be a pilot to demonstrate the kinds of insights our approach can generate and to act as preliminary results for a larger grant proposal. Also, Prof. Mickel already has an IRB protocol in process.

The anthropology undergraduate students on the project, under the mentorship of Prof. Mickel, will conduct qualitative interviews with members of this lab and participant observation of day-to-day lab practice. Interviews will ask questions about the kinds of ethical issues or questions that emerge in the course of the lab’s work, how members of the lab address those issues, and what formal and informal guidance they have received to navigate ethical challenges. 

An English graduate student will also analyze the interview transcripts. This analysis will bring an orientation from rhetoric that engages specifically with questions of ethics. Our contention is that labs constitute rhetorical communities with particular habits of communication.

Third, a computer science graduate student will analyze the interview transcripts. This analysis will leverage topic modeling (Blei et al. 2003; Blei 2012), which can automatically identify latent themes in a corpus of documents. Prior work has demonstrated that the results of topic modeling can align with human analyses (Rhody 2013; Baumer et al. 2017). Furthermore, topic modeling can provide an alternative lens, enabling researchers to see and interpret patterns in ways that complement other readings of a text (Jockers 2013; Goldstone & Underwood 2014).

Each of these analyses of the interview transcripts will be conducted separately. Working with a faculty member from their respective disciplines, each student will write a summary of their analysis. Once all summaries have been written, the summaries will be circulated among all team members. At a joint meeting, all research team members will discuss the similarities and differences across the three analyses (cf. Baumer et al. 2017). Doing so will identify ways that each analysis enhances the others, and it will demonstrate the unique value of such a mixed methods approach.

During this exchange process, students will be co-supervised by the involved faculty. In line with the Humanities Lab’s mission, this interdisciplinary approach will help expose students to research methods and epistemic orientations outside their own disciplinary training. The project, ultimately, will provide a pilot, proof-of-concept study for a future major grant submission, but will also itself lead to a publication on the possibilities and challenges of bringing together such complementary and interdisciplinary methods.