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Voting on an Ethics Committee

March 7, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 10


On March 16, at the ACS Council meeting in San Diego, the Committee on Committees (ConC) will renew its proposal that an ethics committee be instituted. The proposed charge will be: "To coordinate the ethics-related activities of the society; to serve as an educational resource and clearinghouse, but not as an adjudication body, for ACS members seeking guidance on ethics issues; to raise awareness of ethics issues through meeting programming and columns/editorials; to review recognition opportunities for acknowledging ethical behavior; and to develop and oversee such other ethics-related activities as will serve ACS members and promote the society's standards of ethical conduct within the profession of chemistry and its related disciplines."

ConC takes its responsibilities seriously, as evidenced by the fact that it has taken three task forces and four years of in-depth study to consider this issue and to arrive at this proposal. ConC is keenly aware of the need to keep the cost of committees and the number of committees to a minimum, as well as to avoid the addition of unneeded layers to the ACS bureaucracy. It has been many years since ConC has proposed that a new committee be created. ConC is convinced that ethics is an overarching concern of the society and asks for the support of council members to recognize the importance of raising the awareness of ethics among members and promoting ethics initiatives by creating a full committee devoted to ethics in our scientific enterprise.

The three task forces amassed a tremendous amount of material concerning ethics, some of which is available on the ConC website. Fifty-seven societies were surveyed to determine the extent of their ethics efforts. A survey of all ACS committees was conducted. Online ethics-related materials were investigated. The chair of the Professional Standards & Ethics Subcommittee of the Committee on Economic & Professional Affairs (CEPA) and a member of the Younger Chemists Committee presented information to the task forces. There were informational presentations and discussions with the ACS general counsel; the director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Scientific Freedom, Responsibility & Law Program; and the executive director of the American Institute of Chemists.

The findings of the task force include the following:

◾ ACS lacks a sustained and pervasive focus on ethics activities. Committee and programmatic activities tend to be diffuse and decentralized. Although ACS units and departments develop some excellent ethics-related documents--including a "Chemists Code of Conduct," academic and employment guidelines, and "Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research"--and occasionally sponsor ethics programming, these and other activities are largely undertaken independent of each other, as the society lacks a central coordinating unit singularly devoted to ethics-related activities.

◾ While key ethics activities are not currently taking place within ACS in any systematic way, the greatest void is in the area of ethics education. ACS lacks a resource center/clearinghouse for ACS members seeking information and guidance on ethics-related issues.

◾ Given the existence of a means within the ACS bylaws to respond to charges of conduct injurious to the society, and of legal and other risks that could arise from a broadening of this activity, the task force does not recommend that ACS undertake to develop a function adjudicating ethics conflicts between individuals, organizations, or between individuals and institutions unrelated to ACS.

◾ The existence of a stand-alone ethics committee would send a message to members and the external public that the American Chemical Society considers ethical conduct within its disciplines to be an important priority that is expected of its members and that is present in society activities.

These findings constitute a persuasive case for recommending the establishment of an ethics committee. However, this committee cannot be responsible for all of the society's ethics activities because ethics would become too compartmentalized, and the society would fail to make use of the expertise of existing committees and society units. Instead, the ethics committee must help ACS create a sustained and pervasive ethics awareness in all parts of the society. The ethics committee must take advantage of the diverse expertise of our members to encourage them to craft ethics initiatives that correspond to their interests. For example, CEPA should retain its Subcommittee on Standards & Ethics because of its institutional expertise and strong member interest. Publications should maintain ethical publication principles, and our education-related committees should continue the development of ethics in the educational process. When all committees have ethics programs, there will still be significant development, programmatic, and coordination activities for the ethics committee.

A visible, active ethics committee that serves ACS by maintaining a high level of ethics awareness and that serves the members by providing timely and useful information, resources, and direction is an idea whose time has come.

Councilors are also urged to attend the open meetings of ConC in San Diego or meet your ConC representatives at your district caucus to discuss issues related to the proposed ethics committee.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of the committee.




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