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ACS News

What’s ethics got to do with it?

by William Leong, chair, ACS Committee on Ethics
May 16, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 18


William Leong.
Credit: Kymera Therapeutics
William Leong

When was the last time you discussed ethics at work, home, or a social gathering?

For many, ethics are a rigid set of rules that become relevant only in times of trouble. We may not spend much time reflecting on the personal and societal ethics that shape our daily choices. But the truth is, ethics guide us in every decision we make—whether we realize it or not.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to reckon with a host of new ethical concerns, such as compulsory social distancing, the use of face masks, and the equitable distribution of vaccines. The global health crisis has shined a spotlight on the moral considerations behind our daily choices, but the same fundamental questions will remain when the pandemic recedes. We often struggle with individual, and professional responsibilities associated with social justice, food and water security, the mining of rare and precious minerals, the opioid crisis, and global climate change. When we break these issues down to their basic components, certain questions arise: What kind of world do we wish to live in? What are our obligations to that world? What kind of people do we want to be? As members of the American Chemical Society, we can ask ourselves these same questions—as individuals and as members of the scientific organization to which we belong.

We see ethical issues impact academia, where remote learning environments allow for more instances of academic dishonesty. There is an uptick in the number of methods for students to cheat on exams and homework assignments. A growing debate has emerged in the academic community on which group faces the biggest loss when cheating occurs. Is it the cheating students, who rob themselves of an education? Is it their honest classmates, who are penalized through the grading curve? Or is it the educational institutions, who find themselves on the defense? In navigating the complex and challenging world in which we are tested every day, we must follow ethical behavior in all aspects of our work.

The Committee on Ethics serves to empower all chemists with ethical decision-making in everything that we do.

ACS is united through a passion for chemistry, the language of science, and the desire to do good. The society has a diverse membership base that includes all the branches of science, law, industry, government, business, and education. ACS’s tagline, “Chemistry for life,” speaks to the society’s mission to “advance the broader chemistry enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Earth and its people.” ACS’s vision, “to improve people’s lives through the transforming power of chemistry,” can be achieved only with integrity.

The federal charter of ACS cites a desire to improve “the qualifications and usefulness of chemists through high standards of professional ethics, education, and attainments.” This legacy continues today through the society’s Chemical Professional’s Code of Conduct, which requires members to strive “for the highest standards of scientific integrity,” to serve the public interest, to treat others with respect, and not to engage in “discrimination, harassment, bullying, dishonesty, fraud, misrepresentation, coercive manipulation, censorship, or other misconduct.” The code of conduct encourages taking “responsibility to act or intercede where possible to prevent misconduct.”

Similarly, ethics policies in research are widely published, with many areas of research requiring mandatory ethics education. Training on the responsible conduct of research, required by the US National Institutes of Health, promotes scientific inquiry in an “environment that enables scientists to work together toward common goals, and promotes public confidence in scientific knowledge and progress for the public good.”

The ACS Committee on Ethics vision is to lead a culture of ethics in chemistry. The committee provides and promotes resources and activities that educate, guide, and recognize ethical decision-making in chemistry. The committee maintains a website,, that serves as a clearinghouse for curated reference materials, websites, white papers, case studies, and interactive videos on ethics-related topics to educate and spur discussions at the local section and classroom settings. The committee sponsors symposia and ChemLuminary Awards for Outstanding Local Section Programming Related to the Promotion of Ethics in Chemistry. ACS members are invited to participate and contribute to the committee’s mission. The Committee on Ethics serves to empower all chemists with ethical decision-making in everything that we do.

As we look to the future, the committee is focused on three goals to further advance a culture of ethics in chemistry. First, we aim to develop and disseminate ethics-centered educational products for use by ACS local sections. Next, we strive to develop collaborative programming on ethics with other groups, both inside and outside ACS. And last, we’re committed to strengthening efforts and activities that will increase member recognition of the value of ethics in their careers and their impact on society. To share your ideas or suggestions on fostering a culture of ethics in the chemical sciences, please feel free to contact me at or the Ethics Committee at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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