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July 2011 Issue

New Ocean Technology: Do Ethics Matter?
By Melissa Brodeur
In the past decade, new technologies for observing the marine environment and its organisms have revolutionized the way research is conducted. Marine scientists commonly use suites of instrumentation, including in-situ sensors, ROVs, AUVs, DNA sequencers, real-time species tracking devices and remote sensors, all of which offer new and exciting views of ocean life and ecological processes. Along with the utilization of new ways to observe the ocean, the Internet has allowed researchers and scientists to share their data and results in near real time with a growing community of colleagues, resource managers, students, members of industry and the general public.

As scientists, we are so focused on testing our hypotheses that we often don't recognize the potential of this information being used in ways we've never considered, for better and for worse. For instance, real-time tracking data of commercial fish species can improve management but could also aid those practicing destructive or illegal fishing methods. Another consequence not often considered is that some marine research technologies can change the very environment scientists seek to understand, while others may carry national security risks.

Much of the time, the application of data solves problems, has positive results on societal issues and can inform regulations. What is unclear is how much more must be done to address the growing number of negative or unintended consequences.

We need to thoughtfully consider alternative uses or consequences of new and emerging tools, technologies and information in the marine world. The question of ethics, science and technology is not a new topic. The ethical ramifications of certain innovations, such as the atomic bomb and the mapping of the human genome, have been widely considered, debated and weighed. But not all new technologies undergo such careful and thoughtful scrutiny, especially in the ocean, which often seems too immense for individuals to affect. Yet a unified focus on ethical ramifications as they pertain to societal benefits as well as the conservation and management of marine resources is necessary.

Such ethical discussions are becoming more critical as scientific endeavors become more transparent. Society is not only interested in the benefits of technology but also how new developments could affect the environment. Momentary advantages must be tempered by present and future ramifications, so society can use sustainably the physical, commercial, social and health benefits the ocean provides.

This means using new and emerging technologies comes with more responsibility. Yes, some may consider such responsibilities an unwanted burden, but many are beginning to realize the importance of demonstrating caution while conducting their research. Those who develop and use these technologies are the experts and therefore need to take a step back to look at the implications of their work.

How do we ensure new capabilities and the resulting data are paired with appropriate controls to guarantee the sustainable use of the ocean without compromising ecosystem health? As a community, we should encourage our young and emerging scientists to acquire appropriate ethics training. Discussions of ethics and technology should be offered as continual career development training and mentoring for undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students or early career scientists entering science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers.

It would compel those entering the workforce to consider the ethical questions that are connected with new technology, how that technology's use will affect the marine environment and how real or potential issues should be addressed. As scientists progress in their careers, training should address topics of responsible sampling, evolution of technology, responsible use of new tools and data, and correct data attribution and citation.

Some universities already are incorporating these ethical considerations into coursework. For instance, engineering students at John Hopkins University discuss ethics as part of their coursework, as mandated by the biomedical engineering department. Students learn to see the big picture of their research, while faculty members note they also benefit from increased collaboration with other disciplines. Environmental ethics courses are offered at many universities but should be integrated into marine science-specific coursework elsewhere. Too often, ethics is considered part of philosophical ideals that do not trickle down into everyday activities of researchers and scientists in the field.

These training efforts need to be strengthened, and the industry can help. Increased interactions between academics and industry members are crucial in encouraging industries and organizations to examine the ethics surrounding their research. Sharing knowledge about ethical considerations will help establish a foundation for the development of a common set of ethical guidelines.

Thus, to answer my own question posed in the title of this article—"do ethics matter?"—I reply with an emphatic yes. I see a clear connection between the consideration of ethics surrounding new technology and ensuring appropriate education and development in marine sciences.

We need to support those who share lessons learned and facilitate a culture of collaboration amongst members of industry, academics and researchers. Let us ensure the next generation of marine scientists will have all the tools they need to make informed choices about the use of new technologies.
Melissa Brodeur, of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, is the program specialist for the National Ocean Sciences Bowl, a national high school competition that tests students on their marine sciences knowledge. Brodeur, who has a master's in earth sciences and oceanography from the University of New Hampshire, previously worked for the Census of Marine Life as a program specialist.


2012:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY | JUNE | JULY | AUG | SEPT | OCT | NOV | DEC
2011:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY | JUNE | JULY | AUG | SEPT | OCT | NOV | DEC

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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.