Social Responsibility, the Lesser Discussed Parameter of Responsible Research Conduct
The issue of social responsibility is, in my opinion, one of the most critical and highly complex areas of Responsible Research Conduct. I also think it is the least discussed. Discourse on social responsibility can be emotionally charged and often political because discussing social responsibility often requires discussing money. Money is the ultimate conversational taboo beyond that of religion or politics, a fact that has become clear to me while writing this article. Therefore, similar to religion and politics, discourse on social responsibility is often avoided. Furthermore, within the context of research, discourse on social responsibility requires discussion of money in conjunction with academic or intellectual freedom and we don't like to consider that the ideal of intellectual freedom could be influenced by money. However, as institutions address their growing financial needs in an increasingly competitive research environment we are stumbling into the awkward discourse of money in academics. In fact, as many universities create systems designed to seek out opportunities to partner with industry, a need for discourse on social responsibility and intellectual freedom is similarly being addressed.
The goal of this article is to address the difficulty of defining social responsibility by presenting it in the context of the controversial issue of hydraulic fracturing or fracking. I will preface this discussion by clearly stating that I am not an expert on fracking, but rather I find myself in a quandary as I rely on field experts to make responsible decisions that will best meet my energy needs while protecting society from environmental hazards. I have no doubt that there are passionate and better informed readers with a clear agenda on fracking. My goal is not to incite anger or passion of one side or the other, but rather to demonstrate the complexity of deciding what is or is not socially responsible while being honest about my power needs and educating myself on a critical issue of which I am not well informed.
My role in the controversy of fracking is that of the general consumer population. I am not a landowner or business person that stands to benefit from widespread use of fracking nor am I a petroleum engineer or environmental scientist that has vast knowledge about the technology and environmental hazards posed by fracking. I am, however, an energy consumer that has been known to throw minor tantrums during power failures. I live on a budget so I need that power to be affordable. I'm also a US citizen that has come to understand the vulnerability associated with reliance on fuel from foreign lands. Finally, I have no doubt that if I looked closely into my retirement portfolio, I would find that I am somehow invested in oil and gas companies. On the other hand, I worry about environmental damage because we need clean air and safe water to survive. Furthermore, I love camping and spending time in the outdoors and have great respect for nature. Therefore, on the simplest level, as an individual, my life has competing agendas regarding the use and safety of fracking.
Briefly, in what is likely naïve simplicity, I understand that fracking is a method for extracting natural gas that is trapped between deep layers of rock. Although the rock has natural cracks or fissures, they remain tightly compressed due to natural pressure of amassed rock, soil and earth so the gas remains trapped in the rock. Fracking is a procedure that pumps fluid into the layers of rock to counter the pressure gradient and open the fissures, allowing the release and collection of natural gas. Arguably, this is a technology that has been emerging for more than 60 years. Modern controversy has revolved around the potential for environmental damage associated with the often unidentified (trade secret) and potentially harmful chemicals that are pumped into the rock layers. It is argued that the chemicals can potentially leak out and contaminate soil, groundwater and air. Key players in the controversy are oil and gas companies, landowners, environmental scientists and of course as discussed above, the consumer.
As a native Detroiter, I grew up in a population that is intimately aware of the dual nature of corporations. A primary social responsibility of corporations is profit. It is through their profit agenda that corporations contribute to social growth that provides jobs and resources in sufficient mass to sustain society. As such, when sponsored research yields results with the potential for mass benefit, corporations may be a critical partner in rapidly getting that benefit to the taxpaying public that sponsored the research. After all, what good is a technological or medical breakthrough if it sits on a lab shelf while researchers figure out how to be businessmen? However, a quick search of mass media rapidly reveals a plethora of current and historical examples of corporate abuse of human rights and environmental resources. Therefore, corporations can generate positive and negative social impact (often at the same time) and thus are often a key component to socially responsible application of research. As such, regulatory input has historically been necessary to minimize the damage while an agenda for profit generates a positive contribution. In the case of fracking, oil and gas companies can implement drilling that will maximize profit for investors, and provide energy resources that will minimize the frequency of my tantrums from power outage. However, I'm greatly concerned about drilling companies pumping unidentified (trade secret) chemicals into the ground, even though I understand that guarding technology is a means of maintaining a competitive advantage. It is the lack of transparency with regard to these chemicals that most concerns me as a consumer because it does not provide government and independent scientists necessary information so that they can assess and work to minimize negative environmental impact. In my opinion, transparency is necessary for effective regulatory oversight to minimize negative environmental impact, even if it impacts my retirement portfolio.
Another key and conflicted player in the controversy of fracking is the family farmers and landowners. News reports of overnight millionaire farmers created by the discovery of natural gas deposits prompt celebration of their good fortune while voicing reservations about the safety of fracking and it was one of these reports that peaked my interest in fracking. Farmland is a financial investment that provides for a family, but in many cases, the land has also been the family home, sometimes for multiple generations. Furthermore, the land and groundwater historically sustained the livelihood of neighbors and the community as well. Therefore, farmers often have an intimate relationship with the land and community that urban progeny, such as I, have only experienced in books and movies. Fracking could result in land and ground water contamination which would be detrimental to close neighbors and the community, potentially stranding family and friends that lack lucrative drilling contracts. As outsiders and/or energy consumers, it is easy to celebrate the good fortune or judge landowners for contracting with oil and gas companies. However, it is more difficult to ponder the conflict experienced by those intimately linked with the land while they make critical choices as to what is the socially responsible decision.
Defining the socially responsible role of government with regard to controversial technology such as fracking is even more difficult. In the modern age, government is both responsible for meeting the power needs of society and ensuring public safety. Therefore, branches of government invest in energy development but also fund research on environmental hazards and human welfare. In the case of fracking, the "holy grail" is to efficiently harvest natural gas deposits while having no negative environmental impact on land or ground water. Approaching this goal requires ongoing critical unbiased assessment of all risk and benefit data so that standards and regulations can be imposed that maximize productivity while minimizing hazards. In all honesty, that last statement was difficult to write because an unbiased assessment may be a mythical concept, which is why I referred to it as a "holy grail" and not a "brass ring" because the latter is an attainable goal. That being said, the strength of government involvement can be to promote independent research free from corporate bias. As such, a critical and delicate balance must constantly be addressed so that government and universities work with members of society to maintain independent research addressing safety, while also partnering with industry to maximize efficiency and productivity to meet social demands. In other words, government is serving a nation with an ever growing need for energy that must be met but also must support research free from corporate bias that assesses hazards associated with fracking to ensure public safety.
As demonstrated above, discussing the social responsibility of fracking necessitated a discussion of money and even politics. Luckily, I was able to avoid religion. So, what is my conclusion with regard to the social responsibility of fracking. Well, I have not made up my mind but I did not expect to when I addressed the issue. My goal was to demonstrate that making decisions as to what is socially responsible is not black and white. Furthermore, no "player" in the issue has a one-dimensional role, they all have conflicting agendas. As science and technology evolve to meet the needs of society, it is the responsibility of researchers to constantly question whether the science is responsible even when these questions force us to address uncomfortable topics such as money and politics. Our training well prepares us to address the fun empirical questions such as "How do we do it?" However, as a critical area of responsible research conduct, we cannot neglect the very important question "Should we do it?"
For questions please contact me at: Marianne.email@example.com or (806) 834-4166.
Lane, Neal F. (2011) Science Policy Tools: Time for an Update. Issues in Science and Technology Online. Publication of the National Academy of Sciences.
Hydraulic Fracturing Debated in the House. (2011) Center for Science, Technology, and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Osborn SG, Vengosh A, Warner NR, Jackson RB. (2011) Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing. PNAS 801:20, 8127-8176.
Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.