Interface with the Public: Signing a Petition Discussion

Responsible Conduct of Research and Participation

It is important to recognize that a key motivation for this petition is communication to Congress and the general public by scientists and engineers of their stand on an issue. Had the point been merely to refuse SDI funding, that goal could have been accomplished in silence. Signing a petition such as this then raises ethical issues associated with how physicists communicate to others outside their community. 

How will signatures on this petition be interpreted? Will they be interpreted as a statement of a political sentiment by a group of professionals, or will they be interpreted as a statement of professional opinion on an issue of political significance? In the latter case, does signing the petition imply you have a certain level of knowledge and expertise in the area? To what extent is it sufficient to rely on the knowledge and expertise of others before deciding to sign this petition? At the same time, if you do believe that you are aware of reliable, relevant information in a debate over an issue of this importance, arguably you have an obligation to actively seek to share that information with others.

It is also worth considering the issue of trust. Complex societies function in part based on the trust we have for people in their area of expertise. Physicists can continue to have a positive impact on society and continue to receive support from society provided they maintain the trust of society. One aspect of maintaining this trust is making it clear when a statement is being made based primarily on scientific information about which one has some knowledge, and when a statement is being made based on political considerations. 

In the case study provided above, insufficient information has been provided in order to judge whether there is a scientific basis on which to sign the petition. More information is required. That in fact illustrates the point: one should not express an opinion that might be interpreted as an “expert opinion” without having acquired sufficient knowledge about the technical issues.

A second issue presented by this case study relates to the promise not to solicit a particular form of funding. Suppose you have kept up with the technical issues raised by the petition, and you do feel sufficiently knowledgeable to sign it. If you are presently in a job situation that would not ordinarily give rise to your pursuing such funding, is it reasonable or is it misleading to sign the petition? For instance, if you are a beginning graduate student whose research is funded by the National Science Foundation through a grant held by your thesis advisor, there may be little need for you to apply for funding in the next few years. Is it misleading to sign a petition foreswearing the pursuit of SDI funds when you had no intention of pursuing any funding anyway?

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