Two apparently unrelated articles, in the same feed, set me off on this subject. The first [Link] details how almost half of the scientists doing research for the National Institute of Health are looking into finding other employment because of recent changes in ethics rules. The second [Link] talks about how the Army censors soldier’s blogs.
Let me get past the superficialities quickly. The Army’s excuse for censoring blogs is that the nation is at war and the blogs may compromise classified or other vital need-to-know information to the enemy; their rationale is that those in service to the nation have effectively resigned their rights under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The NIH’s excuse is that their scientists have been “moonlighting” with commercial organizations with financial interest in NIH activities. In a bureaucratic, organizational sense, giving “aid and comfort to the enemy” are common to both cases.
What we tend to miss in considering both of these is that organizations do not have ethics; only the members of organizations have ethics. But this does not deter a growing trend of organizations to prescribe what they call ethics but are actually rules of conduct designed to aid the organization. In actuality, this is an abject failure of ethics and a sad indictment of our entire society that we allow, even encourage, organizations to have ethical standards.
Organizations have cultures, sets of survival rules, that members must subscribe to, but the organization’s culture should reflect the interests of its members. This falls apart when the organizations becomes an employer rather than a unifier. The matter of ethics among commercial organizations has long been a joke and enjoys no special regard by the populace except when it is trotted out, and then, as a matter of galgenhumor. Religious organizations have commonly abandoned ethics in their avidity to recruit new members and swell their coffers.
Government is more serious about its pretensions of ethical behavior, but is in many ways worse because of its duplicity. Ethics in government, both among elected officials and members of the military and civilian services, is a Potempkinism; a facade without substance. Simply put, the rules of ethics in government organizations are whatever the organization says they are, and this statement changes quite frequently. As a result, government has to continually subject their members to intensive but banal training on the current statement of ethics.
This has intensified in recent years as politicians and senior bureaucrats cannot admit any inkling of failure. The Army is a sterling example of this, having evolved a taxonomy of public statements akin to the sizes of detergent boxes: an abject, crash and burn failure is a “qualified success”; a draw situation is a “resounding success”; and an actual success is a “success that exceeds all expectations”. Other government organizations appear to be similar, but less well developed in their rhetoric.
The sad part of this is that the absence of ability to accept and aggregate the ethical standards of the members of the organization is largely abolishing any ethical standards. In effect, the members of the organization are being told that it is unimportant if they have any ethical standards since first, they are irrelevant to the organizations; and second, the organization’s standards are fashions and fads to be adopted only as a costume and not permanent structure.
In the meantime, this may not be part of a government war on science but it is definitely a government attack on scientists whose commitment to science has strong ethical foundations. This antithesis of ethics is making the agony of working for the government more untenable for scientists. So quit whining about not being able to recruit scientists and clean your own Augean stables.