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Considering ethics during a time of crisis

by Judith N. Currano, Chair, Committee on Ethics
April 25, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 16


This is a photo of Judith Currano.
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Judith Currano

So much can change in a short time. In February 2019, I wrote a C&EN Comment describing the activities of the American Chemical Society Committee on Ethics and encouraging local sections to develop ethics-related programming and then self-nominate for our ChemLuminary Award. Just over 12 months later, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw the unprecedented cancellation of an ACS national meeting in my home city of Philadelphia. This cancellation was a small disruption compared with the subsequent cataclysmic changes to our daily lives and work.

The long-term effects of these changes are still undetermined. Our population is more starkly divided than ever into groups of haves and have nots. As academic classes have moved online for all students, from kindergartners to graduate students, we find that some learners have the resources and learning styles to allow them to function or even thrive in an online environment, while others do not. For many, the idea of ethics is linked with that of fairness or equity, yet nothing about the current situation is remotely fair or equitable.

Like many, I am currently struggling with online teaching. I teach chemical information retrieval, a subject that should be well suited to an online teaching environment. Unfortunately, holding class meetings has been the only thing that has gone smoothly. Performing practice searches and evaluating their effectiveness is essential when learning this subject. The inherent challenge to students of compiling a robust search in a chemistry database can be compounded by internet connectivity issues and database load times. Students with fast connections are able to test their answers with ease, while those without will have more difficulty gauging the efficacy of their searches. As I struggle to help all my students learn a subject that is largely computer based, I recognize and applaud my colleagues who are trying to maintain equity in their classrooms while simultaneously adapting wet-laboratory classes to an online environment, a truly gargantuan task.

The Committee on Ethics is developing a new website,, which will serve as a clearinghouse of reliable resources for ethical decision-making.

Ethics also has an important role to play in information sharing and decision-making, especially during crisis situations. In an ideal world, all scientific information would be trustworthy because all researchers would carefully design experiments in a manner divorced from external interests or biases; would work at a pace that ensures the greatest accuracy and reproducibility of results; would report those results honestly and meticulously, being careful to reference the source of all research that influenced the current work; and would correct their papers promptly when errors are discovered. In the real world, a variety of external pressures and ignorance of the ethical norms of scientific communication can lead to careless or even fraudulent science that cannot be reproduced or trusted. As a result, we must carefully evaluate the information that we receive to ensure its reliability before attempting to use it. Fortunately, when it comes to information about ethics, you have some assistance.

The Committee on Ethics is developing a new website,, which will serve as a clearinghouse of reliable resources for ethical decision-making. The website will include links to external resources, as well as material developed by the committee itself. Members of the Committee on Ethics are hard at work curating external links, writing white papers on ethics-related topics, and devising short, interactive videos that can be used to spur discussions of ethical issues with students and younger chemists.

In August, the Committee on Ethics presented its inaugural ChemLuminary Award for Outstanding Local Section Programming Related to the Promotion of Ethics in Chemistry to the Silicon Valley Local Section, and we are currently evaluating self-nominations for the 2020 award. We continue to encourage all local sections to highlight ethical issues at all programs and then self-nominate for our 2021 ChemLuminary Award. If you are interested in hosting programs specifically focused on ethics but are struggling to find ideas, we will soon be posting a list of possible ideas and topics on our new website. We also encourage individuals to share the results of their own ethics-related research by contributing to Committee on Ethics–cosponsored symposia at ACS national and regional meetings and other conferences.

At the committee’s strategic planning retreat in June 2019, we articulated our idealized view of the world in a new vision statement: “Leading a culture of ethics in chemistry,” and we devised a new mission statement to support this vision: “To provide and promote resources and activities that educate, guide, and recognize chemists in ethical decision-making.” As you promote ethical practices in your research, classrooms, and daily lives, you are partnering with us to achieve this mission and thus make our vision a reality. I welcome your suggestions and feedback at

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



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