Ethics, activism, and research

For some years now, as the end of my PhD drew near and my postdoctoral work began to unfold, I have felt anxious about committing my life to research. It’s an anxiety that lurks in the back of my mind: it lets me be while I go through my daily routine, but when I sit back and pause to reflect, it crawls out of its hole and demands my full attention: it asks whether what I do is worth it; whether “software engineering research” is really my best answer to that intimidating, sometimes paralyzing question: knowing what you know about the state the world is in, what will you do with your life?

Some recent posts by Jon Pipitone, as well as some personal developments in my life, finally forced me to try and tease out what is it that bugs me about a life of research, and what can I do about it. I think the source of the problem is that research, for the most part, is understood as a value-neutral activity. Or rather, that research is assumed to be valuable naturally, for its own sake. Generalizing: research, if it goes as it should, leads to “progress,” and we take it for granted that progress is a good thing—therefore, research is also inherently a good thing. But these assumptions are questionable.

First, not all research agendas lead to progress. Of course, it is the nature of research that we never quite know at the start whether a particular avenue of exploration will prove productive or not, and therefore many research projects come up empty-handed, and we should be OK with that. But when I say that research does not necessarily lead to progress I’m not talking about that; I’m talking about research that we know (or should know, if we didn’t purposefully keep a veil over our eyes) that it’s not going anywhere. Every field is different, and I can’t risk a guess about the value to society of most medical, physical, or psychological research. But I can analyze my own field, and when I do I conclude that we don’t yet have much to show to our society for the privilege of doing research.

Now and then, the argument goes, a genuinely useful idea sparks, and it makes all the other effort worthwhile: we achieve progress. On this, again, I’m not convinced. “Progress” has undeniably given us many wonderful things, but it also seems to be bringing us to the brink of collapse—our society more and more like a Jenga tower, reaching higher every turn but also becoming more unstable, until we reach the inevitable point where the tiles all fall to the ground. Thinking about progress invariably reminds me of that Walter Benjamin quote that I posted a few years ago:

“A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

We are taught to see our research as a tool: not good or bad in itself; its ethics lie in the way our society decides to use it. When you research something seemingly good and worthy, you might be also unwittingly hurting our civilization, and viceversa: war research and weapon development, we are often reminded, have been the source of many improvements to modern life. So why bother? In sum: we are merely the builders of this tool called research, and it is not our job to question it.

This is what I mean when I say that research is for the most part value-neutral (and please note, again, that I speak only with knowledge of my own domain). Generally speaking, we don’t care where the money for our research comes from, we don’t care who benefits from it directly, and we don’t care how its results can be misappropriated to the detriment of society, as long as we get to tackle our (perhaps socially worthless) research questions. We act as if it were not our position to question these things—it is convenient to not have to think about who are we helping or hurting from the comfort of our desks, labs, and podiums. Our discussion of “research ethics” is usually far more superficial than these considerations: it focuses on protecting participants from risk, on consent, on avoiding plagiarism. Which are all important issues, of course, but ethics is far more than that, and unfortunately “dealing with ethics” in the university environment has simply become synonymous with “convincing the review board that we won’t harm our participants.” Even the deeper treatments of research ethics that I’ve found have unsatisfactory results—see for instance the ethical contortions, here, to justify a collaboration with a tobacco think tank. (If you know of good discussions of research ethics, please share them in the comments.)

This neutrality, this abstraction from the very direct consequences that our research could or should have, stands in my mind in stark contrast to the ills that plague the world and demand urgent attention. We stand by a social and economic system of abuse and growing inequality; we witness the rise to power of the corporation; most importantly, we know very well that we approach a climate catastrophe of our own creation, and a depletion of the most basic resources holding our civilization together. When I remember all of this, when this anxiety takes hold of me, going back to the question of whether ‘foo’ is better than ‘bar’ for some kind of software development project seems either stupid or criminally complicit.

What is there to do? I think that a deeper commitment to bring these ethical issues into our research should lead us, at least, to do four things: (1) to be more discriminating with our sources of funding and more aware of the patterns we encourage when we accept money from bodies whose values we disagree with; (2) to say “no” to contributing with those organizations that pursue values that are in opposition to ours (in my case, those that thrive on the exploitation of natural resources or labour, on violence or oppression, as well as those that actively oppose sustainability, equality, welfare, or diversity); (3) to actively seek out and collaborate with those organizations that pursue values in harmony to ours; and (4) to honestly reflect on whether our research projects are truly the best use of our abilities for the greater good, considering the many ways in which the world needs unscrewing, and to switch activities if we find that to be the honourable thing to do.

This sounds great in theory, but it’s quite hard to do in practice. My big unresolved questions at this point are: what does this mean for a junior researcher? And specifically, what does this mean in my domain? Can we actually pull this off—this researcher/activist combination? If so, how does “pulling this off” look like? I know that in some disciplines people have managed to achieve a research-activist balance, but despite the examples that Jon dug up I still have a hard time figuring out how to make this work for my skills and abilities, and in a domain that, to all appearances, does not care (and does not encourage care) about these issues. I also know that there are senior researchers in my community that are making it work—Steve Easterbrook, my PhD advisor, being an example I’m particularly proud of. But he has tenure, and I don’t; instead I have a pressure to prove myself as a researcher, to publish (it doesn’t matter what, as long as it’s in big venues), and to develop corporate connections, before my funding runs out in a couple of years and I’m forced to jump to the next treadmill.

I think I’m partly writing this down to keep myself honest and avoid becoming complacent: I fear in time it’ll be easy to just give in to the routine. But I’m also partly writing it to ask around: do you feel or have you felt the same way? How do you cope, or how have you made it work? How should I approach this problem?

About Jorge Aranda

I'm currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the SEGAL and CHISEL labs in the Department of Computer Science of the University of Victoria.
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16 Responses to Ethics, activism, and research

  1. Greg Wilson says:

    1. Yes.

    2. By leaving academia.

    3. By accepting that you’re (very) employable outside academia. If the academic system won’t hire/promote you for doing things that maximize some weighted combination of fun, utility, intellectual challenge, and self-respect, you can go elsewhere. You can therefore strive to maximize without worrying about whether “they” will reward you, because if they don’t, you can find another “they”.

  2. Great post. I especially like your view of the narrowness of conventional ‘research ethics’, because I think it is true: most research ethics focuses on protection of human subjects, and underlying that, the desire to protect (legally) the institutions funding and/or conducting the research. The larger questions are left out because they are deemed ‘too political’, even though ignoring them is also a political choice. I feel that if the mainstream of researchers were as thoughtful as you, there would be real change in how science is done; however, this does not help your personal dilemma, because it is clear that many scientists simply bear down — are taught to bear down on — on their research question and leave the rest out of their scrutiny and responsibility.

  3. Neil says:

    I feel that way too. My sense is that for at least 5-6 years you have to dedicate yourself completely to your topic, even if you occasionally have second thoughts. This singularity of focus seems to be the common element to the successful profs I’ve met, even if their topic is beyond obscure.

    But who is saying that your research is the only way to judge your success in life or positive contributions to the world? You could run a vegan cafe, help Spanish speakers learn English, give shelter to 100 stray cats, be a good husband and father (harder than it looks on TV!) …

    I’m going to check back in with you in about … oh, a few months. 🙂

    • Jorge Aranda says:

      That’s true, Neil. In my non-work life I’m involved with several projects, and I’m much more at peace with that. It’s just that I’d like to find a way to make it work for the other half of my life, too.

  4. Galax says:

    Somebody said “The world was already like that when I arrived”.

    I know the world is not going to be righted in my lifetime, no matter what I do. So I go by this rules: 1. Survive. 2. Do whatever to leave this world a better place.

    • Jorge Aranda says:

      I’d say that those rules are eminently sensible, but I’m fortunate and privileged enough that “survival” is pretty much sorted out, so I’d like to focus fully on the second.

  5. Galax says:

    A further comment. Your diagnosis is interesting. It’s the cure that’s difficult to prescribe.

    On the other hand, you’re right out of a long term commitment: going through you Ph.D. In a way it’s sort of like reaching the top of Everest and afterwards asking yourself, “now what?” Kind of Baby Blues, too, I guess. (Sorry if I sound like a headshrinker).

    I’ve felt like that, more than once. I’d say not to indulge in the feeling, not to make any harsh decisions and not to worry a lot if you don’t get an answer by tomorrow morning. Busca una respuesta, sin prisa, pero sin pausa. (I couldn’t make a good translation of this last sentence. I am sure you’ll be able to do it for your English speaking readers).

    • Jorge Aranda says:

      I’ve been looking for an answer for a while, and I can look for a while longer—as long as I eventually find one! 😉

    • Tom Roche says:

      hoping this formats as intended (by me 🙂 and prefacing with a disclaimer regarding the poverty of my Spanish, …

      Galax December 10, 2010 at 4:41 pm
      > Busca una respuesta, sin prisa, pero sin pausa.

      … I hear “sin prisa, sin pausa” translated like “slow but sure,” so the whole would be “slowly but surely seeking an answer.” ¿Pero no?

  6. Laurent Bossavit says:

    Jorge: [is] ““software engineering research” […] really my best answer to that intimidating, sometimes paralyzing question: knowing what you know about the state the world is in, what will you do with your life?”

    It may interest you that the question applies equally well in industry. “Given what I know about the state the world is in, are my particular talents, great or small, best applied in the business of writing software for pay?”

    I started out in industry, but find myself moving closer to research, by way of a sort of activism. The questions I grapple with have to do with what a programmer’s role in society might be, and whether the socio-political agenda that underlies the discourse of “software engineering” should be questioned rather than uncritically accepted.

    (One of the things I’ve learned about the “state of the world” that applied to my ethics as a software developer: fairly often still, the raison d’être of the software I write is to put some people out of a job. Sometimes they are distant people – other countries, for instance – sometimes they are the people in the office next door. Sometimes the project manager who is my client frowns when I mention “taking an end user point of view” because the End User constituency overlaps that of Victim.)

    • Jorge Aranda says:

      I agree, Laurent—the same question applies to industry (to ours and to any other).

      The thing about academia though is that you need to follow some conventions and jump through some hoops if you want to do well. The software industry is diverse enough, and so embedded in all aspects of modern life, that a motivated person can (I think) find ethical projects to work on with greater ease.

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