Louise Bezuidenhout and Dori Beeler

There has been a lot of recent interest in virtue ethics as an alternative to deontological framings of responsible conduct of research for the life sciences.[1] Proponents of this approach suggest that virtue ethics offers a more holistic interpretation of responsibility that focuses on character development rather than rule-following. In this way, it is suggested that virtue ethics offers a way to talk about science that does not impose unnatural boundaries between the individual as self and the individual as scientist. Moreover, by focusing on situational conduct, it offers an important way of discussing responsible actions within daily laboratory life. Despite the benefits to be accrued through the use of virtue ethics, opponents criticize this approach for being difficult to teach and discuss. These objections arise from the situatedness of virtue ethics: students learn through doing, and actions can only be understood in context. In order to counter this concern, many proponents of virtue ethics for the life sciences are turning to textual accounts of “exemplary scientists” as a means of demonstrating virtuous behavior in context.

This chapter takes issue with the current selection of exemplars for two key reasons. First, we feel that these discussions tend to use the longitudinal achievements of successful scientists as a proxy for exemplarism. In this way, they marginalize exemplary individuals who embody other key areas of science, such as mentorship, teaching, and community building. Our second objection relates to the narratives currently in use. These tend to be auto/biographies of scientists that do not systematically present their socio-historical context in detail. Nor do they explicitly foreground the position of the author in the text. As an alternative to these problematic texts, we suggest that the rising number of ethnographic accounts of laboratory practices should be recognized as important tools for virtue ethics teaching and discussion. These texts differ from auto/biographies and popular texts as they are methodologically rigorous and present detailed descriptions of ordinary, daily laboratory life. We demonstrate these differences using two texts focusing on the invention of polymerase chain reaction (PCR): an ethnography, Making PCR, and an autobiography, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field. We show how a secondary data analysis of these texts can be used by students and teachers to unpack aspects of virtue ethics in relation to daily conduct as well as more broadly with relation to misconduct. We conclude by suggesting types of ethnographic studies that could be very beneficial for developing a robust virtue ethics account of scientific practice.

Good Conduct is Just the Absence of Bad Conduct…Right?

In recent years there has been a lot of discussion about what constitutes a “responsible scientist.” High-profile examples of scientific misconduct, such as the case of Hwang Woo-suk and issues relating to the reproducibility and reliability of science,[2] have all led to increasing concern about trust in science. Similarly, the anthrax letters of 2001[3] elicited valuable concerns about “bad eggs” within the scientific community who could use their privileged positions to do harm. The response to these concerns has been manifold, and recent decades have seen an explosion of academic research, policy documents, codes of conduct and legislation surrounding this subject.[4] At the heart of this deluge of literature is an attempt to define the responsibilities of individual scientists and the scientific community to each other and to society at large. In effect, it grapples with two key questions: what does it mean to be a responsible scientist and what is responsible science?

Most approaches to scientific ethics adopt a principle-based approach where ethical conduct is taken as synonymous with “adherence to ethical rules, duties or responsibilities.”[5] The use of deontological ethics thus commits practitioners to a universalist and rule-oriented approach. As defined by Alexander and Moore: “deontology is one of those kinds of normative theories regarding which choices are morally required, forbidden, or permitted. In other words, deontology falls within the domain of moral theories that guide and assess our choices of what we ought to do.”[6] It is salient to recognize that actions and consequences are assessed by an external rule-based metric removed from individual contexts of action. Kantian deontology, for example, is driven by the categorical imperative: act according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.[7] This affiliation has been strongly influenced by medical ethics and the adoption of the “4 Principles” approach advanced by Beauchamp and Childress in their 1979 book Principles of Biomedical Ethics.[8] As a result, there has been a recent flood of ethics guidelines and codes of conduct for scientists developed by institutions, professional bodies (such as the American Chemical Society), and (inter)national organizations (such as the National Academies of Sciences and the International Council of Scientific Unions).

Deontology, it may be suggested, defines good conduct as enactment of morally right actions that stem from people’s duties as defined externally of context. It is important to recognize the importance of character in the enactment of good conduct from a deontological perspective, as it is the motives of the person who carries out the action that are the locus of moral import. Indeed, as highlighted by Kant: “Nothing in the world—indeed nothing even beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will.”[9] While this issue of good will is, of course, extensively discussed within Kantian scholarship, within life science ethics issues of character have been largely reduced to statements of intent: scientists should be motivated to further the benefits accrued from scientific research, and avoid the potential harms that could arise from their research. The “good-intent” approach is further fostered by the evolution of the “FFP” (fabrification, falsification and plagiarism) discussions that distinguish misconduct from poor conduct on the basis of intent to cause harm.[10]

Within science curricula the space given to scientific ethics remains highly variable. Indeed, there have been many criticisms regarding the “patchy and unstandardized” nature of formal science ethics instruction.[11] Continual strains on university finances, lack of qualified personnel and already overcrowded curricula make teaching scientists ethics extremely challenging. Notwithstanding these challenges, there are a rising number of courses teaching science ethics. These courses commonly adopt a principle-based approach to introduce students to key areas of responsible conduct of research. These include scientific misconduct (including the “FFP” misdemeanors of fabrication, falsification and plagiarism), working with human or animal subjects, and issues relating to conflicts of interest.[12] They also commonly cover contemporary social issues, such as stem cell research and gene editing, for example.

While the strengths of principlism are widely recognized,[13] there has also been considerable concern that such approaches to ethics training continue to leave students underprepared for the daily challenges they will encounter in research.[14] In particular, concerns have been raised about the de-contextualized nature of ethics training and the lack of direction for implementing high-level ethical principles to identify and address the daily challenges of scientific research. To these well-elaborated concerns, we add our own: that current approaches of life science ethics training tend to focus on defining misconduct, rather than offering guidance on good conduct. Because many common ethical rules are framed as negatives (“you shall not”), students can mistakenly equate good conduct with the absence of bad/misconduct. In the following section we will elaborate on this mis-equation in more detail.

Talking About Trust and Character in Science Ethics

Discussions about good conduct in science are hard. Many policies and regulations are written so as to define prohibited negative behavior rather than to outline good behavior. Moreover, codes of conduct that do describe the attributes of a “good” scientist tend to be very generalized and de-contextualized. Indeed, the extreme variability of research contexts and communities makes this generalization understandable. Nonetheless, the vagueness of what good science conduct is does not help students and teachers of life science ethics. Many students find the vague appeals to the scientific collective alienating, and they struggle to translate and integrate these ideas into their daily research practices. Little discussion is available about what constitutes mediocre, acceptable, proficient, and excellent conduct.

As a result, the deontological tools available to students and teachers are largely a set of rules and requirements. This has a number of implications, including an ethics that is outwardly focused on compliance with rules. Ethical duties are structured so as to minimize the harm (and maximize the benefit) that individual scientists’ actions may have for their discipline and for society. Little, if anything, is said about the responsibility for personal development, either as a scientist or more holistically. The implication is that the character of the scientist comes a priori, not requiring any future trajectory for development. Indeed, while it may be implicitly assumed that personal benefits come from “being a scientist,” such assumptions are nebulous and require substantial further consideration.

Secondly, largely in consequence of the rule-based focus of ethics discourse, scientific ethics continues to focus on misconduct, misdemeanors, and rule-breaking, and their roles in innovation and discovery. Science students are taught what not to do, what rules cannot be broken, and what constitutes unacceptable behavior. Point in fact, much of the content of ethics pedagogy makes use of case studies that detail considerable misconduct—and interestingly, many are out of the frame of reference of most science students. For instance, common case studies relating to biosecurity involve examples such as the resurrected Spanish flu viruses.[15] While appropriately demonstrating ethical concerns, they may be so removed from the work being done by the students in question that they struggle to connect the ethical teaching to their own daily practices. As a result, scientific ethics tends to overlook many of the routine and repetitive practices that make up daily research and their opportunities for fostering character development.

The third difficulty with this approach is related to contemporary understandings of scientific research. Shifts in Science and Technology Studies (STS),[16] the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS),[17] and increasing science/society dialogue have contributed to the abandonment of value-free framings[18] of science[19] in favor of more socially-oriented descriptions.[20] Nonetheless, despite increasingly compelling discussions about varieties of expertise and the porous boundaries of science,[21] scientific ethics continues to make use of clearly demarcated distinctions between “science” and “society.” As a result, “the scientist” becomes an entity almost separate from the individual human who inhabits the role. Consequently, little is said about how scientists mediate their roles as members of society, or manage the competing responsibilities that necessarily accompany the plethora of roles each individual has.[22] Interestingly, despite the emerging discussions about the role of non-epistemic values in science, there appears to be little attention given to how being uniquely trained as scientists shapes who people are as individuals both inside and outside of the laboratory. If science doesn’t stop at the door, and scientists don’t cease to be who they are when they exit the lab, how can we understand an ethics of science that takes into account scientists as complex and unique individuals? How can we understand scientists as individuals for whom the practice of science is only one of a number of different practices[23] and who are embedded in complex networks of responsibility?[24]

Virtue Ethics: A Path Out of the Quandary?

What is evidently needed is a way of talking about character and conduct in a more holistic manner, one that takes into account the ability of individuals to move across different boundaries into different settings. What is needed is an ethics that focuses on assessing what kind of people we are and should be. Virtue ethics offers a robust response to the quandary, enabling a means of talking about holistic character development rather than providing rules or de-contextualized instances of practice.  Virtue ethics makes use of highly contextually-driven discourse on the acquisition of a plethora of different virtues. These may be understood as character traits, the enactment of which facilitates ethical behavior in situ. The acquisition of virtues by an individual occurs through continual striving and the observation of virtuous behavior in others. The acquisition of these virtues is always oriented towards the achievement of a state of “flourishing” in which the ends particular to that individual are realized.

To achieve a state of “flourishing,” and thus be an individual who has reached moral maturity, requires the development of proper character. As highlighted by Aristotle: “we learn by doing…states of character arise out of like activities…. It makes no small difference, then, if we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.”[25] Virtue ethics thus differs from deontological approaches in that the emphasis on rules of conduct is de-emphasized in favor of an awareness of “right behavior” within a specific context and in response to specific circumstances. Moreover, it emphasizes the need for holistic character development in the evolution of an ethically responsible individual, in contrast to character development that emphasizes rule-following.

In relation to life science ethics, both a deontology and virtue ethics approach are oriented towards the same outcomes: socially responsible and responsive science. Nonetheless, when unpacked it becomes apparent that these two approaches offer markedly contrasting interpretations of ethically responsible conduct within scientific research as well as how best to foster the development of ethically responsible scientists. While deontological approaches, via intensive courses and codes of conduct, emphasize compliance and uniformity of practice, virtue ethics, by emphasizing contextual behavior and the importance of exemplars, emphasizes the development of individual self-reflection to find the appropriate action in situ.

These two positions, while contrasting, do not necessarily have to be contradictory. Indeed, authors such as David Resnik[26] have detailed the value of considering both perspectives. Nonetheless, virtue ethics has made very little inroad into life science ethics discussions for a number of different reasons. First and foremost, the absence of virtue ethics in discussions about the life sciences is not an isolated instance. Indeed, virtue discourse has been largely marginalized from many areas of ethics discourse, demonstrating a twentieth century preference for highly operationalizable and generalizable ethics pronouncements. Despite the resurgence of interest that accompanied seminal texts such as Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue,[27] Rosalind Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics,[28] and James Laidlaw’s The Subject of Virtue,[29] virtue ethics remains on the fringe of most discussions of ethics in science. It is likely that this is due, at least in part, to the recognized difficulties of operationalizing a virtue focus in ethics training and the ever-present threat of relativism.[30] Although a growing number of authors are starting to revisit virtue ethics as a means to understand right conduct, both within science practice[31] and beyond, it remains marginalized in ethics education approaches.

The Difficulties of Teaching Responsible Conduct Through Virtue Ethics

One of the key issues keeping virtue ethics on the fringe of mainstream professional ethics is the perception that it is “difficult to teach.” Students of any practical virtue ethics training program need to be educated in how to understand virtues, how to identify them in daily activities, and how to apply them to achieve virtuous outcomes. As expected, teaching virtue ethics can be challenging, as instructors need to facilitate a process of character development within the individual student. Unlike deontology or utilitarianism, there are no absolute rules that can be used to determine right behavior for any individual in any context. Instead, to lead a life of virtue involves “a commitment to learning to be virtuous, further developing one’s virtue, and maintaining what virtues one has.”[32] As Aristotle famously notes, there is an important similarity between virtue and skill: both are practical, and can be learned only by practice, by actually doing what needs to be done.[33]

The need for self-motivation and repetition in the development of virtues causes two problems for virtue ethics that remain highly debated. The first is the “self-centeredness objection,” whereby individuals are motivated to “the pursuit of one’s own virtue, since her own eudaimonia (flourishing) is what a virtuous agent pursues. The virtuous agent is thus primarily concerned with her own virtue, and thereby with cultivating and maintaining it. But surely, it is thought, she should have as her primary focus such things as caring for friends, repaying debts because that is just, being a good parent.”[34]

The second problem relates to the fact that virtue ethics cannot account for many right acts of the self-improving but not yet virtuous agent. These are acts that are intuitively thought to be right (such as breaking the promise that is best in the circumstances to break when one has culpably made conflicting ones), but would not be performed by a virtuous agent (who does not culpably make conflicting promises). In particular, standard virtue-ethical criteria of right action, according to the objection, are incompatible with the possibility that non-virtuous agents can perform right acts that would not be performed by virtuous agents. Such acts may be fitting for agents in the process of cultivating virtue, or who need to somehow rectify previous wrong acts.

In order to sidestep problems relating to teaching, virtue ethics places a strong emphasis on importance of good role models within the learning process. The virtuous agent acts as a role model and the student of virtue emulates his or her example. Initially this is a process of habituating oneself in right action, but this leads to the development of virtue, where true virtue involves choice, understanding, and knowledge. This process of gradual learning is discussed in more detail by Julia Annas:

…Even simple building skills are not easy or effortless to learn; they involve more than copying a role model and then learning by repetition how to do it routinely. We need experience and practice, and we have to learn from someone who can teach us. But from the start something is conveyed in the teaching which is not grasped by the person who merely tries to do exactly what the teacher does. The learner needs to trust the teacher to be doing the right thing to follow and copy, and to be conveying the right information and ways of doing things. And further, from the start the learner of a skill needs also what I have called the drive to aspire, manifesting itself first in the need the learner has to understand what she is doing if she is to learn properly. The learner needs to understand what in the role model to follow, what the point is of doing something this way rather than that, what is crucial to the teacher’s way of doing things a particular way and what is not.[35]

Virtue ethics thus relies strongly on the role of exemplars as a means of guiding action. The role of exemplars has recently become a topic of increased discussion in relation to developing a virtue ethics narrative for responsible scientific research. These “exemplary scientists” are commonly described as embodying “the virtues that dispose them towards the ideal practice of science’s distinctive methods for achieving its goals.”[36] Virtue ethics tends to agree that role modeling is probably best done in personal mentoring relationships where exemplars guide and shape the actions of their students. This is all well and good, but there can be no guarantee that students will have access to an exemplar in their learning environment.

In light of the challenges identified above, recent authors have suggested that this process of role modeling “can be approximated in the classroom by what may be thought of as a virtual apprenticeship with exemplary scientists.”[37] What is meant by this is that classroom instructors use historical texts such as autobiographies and biographies to introduce students to “scientific giants like Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, but including less well-known figures such as Barbara McClintock and Richard Feynman.”[38] This, it is thought, helps students see how the scientific virtues are broadly exemplified.

While such an approach may be an engaging means of piquing students’ interests, the extent to which an auto/biographical text can serve as an exemplar must be debated.[39] Four key problematic issues must be recognized:

  1. Selecting exemplars and understanding virtues in a manner that is not longitudinal or de-contextual;
  2. Not being able to interrogate motivations;
  3. Understanding the socio-historical context of the narrative as well as the subject;
  4. Separating the author from the subject.

Selecting exemplars for use in education must be recognized as a highly political activity. As exemplars necessarily embody certain virtues, selecting specific individuals over others foregrounds a specific vision of scientific research. Simply selecting highly successful and internationally recognized scientists presents students with a confusing conflation of virtue and success—namely, suggesting that being virtuous somehow leads to success, or vice versa. Presenting successful scientists as a fait accompli also prohibits students from engaging with the daily struggles of individual scientists who are not yet virtuous. Narrating a “path to greatness” makes use of a teleological lens through which all actions are weighed. This causes the right acts of the self-improving but not yet virtuous agent to be interpreted as having future significance. Using highly successful scientists as exemplars also downplays other key areas of science, such as mentorship and teaching,[40] and overlooks the plethora of highly virtuous scientists specializing in these areas. Providing students with these “ideal” rather than real cases may not be the best way to get students to identify with the virtues under discussion or enable them to understand how to act upon them in their daily lives.

The second major challenge of using texts as proxies for exemplars is that students are not necessarily able to question the motives and motivations of the subject under study. Without these discussions, it is possible that students will not be able to navigate the “self-centeredness objection” discussed above. In addition, it is well-recognized that acquiring virtues requires that the expert provide the learner with reasons for their actions.[41] As discussed by Annas:

The learner in virtue, like the learner in a practical skill, needs to understand what she is doing, to achieve the ability to do it for herself, and to do it in a way that improves as she meets challenges, rather than coming out with predictable repetition. This comes about when the virtue is conveyed by the giving and receiving of reasons, in contrast with the non-rational picking up of a knack.[42]

The inability to interrogate the reasons behind specific actions opens students up to misinterpretation or speculation, both of which can undermine the integrity of any ethics instruction.

The final two concerns relate to the contextualization of written texts. Virtue ethics foregrounds the importance of context in understanding virtuous actions. Indeed, identifying the appropriate action for a specific time and space separates it from other ethical theories. This contextuality is foregrounded in MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which concludes that accounts of virtue require a prior understanding of the social and moral features of the society in which it occurred. The need for such contextualization is important not only when understanding the narrative of a specific individual’s life, but also for understanding the motivations of the author who wrote the text.

The discussion above draws attention to some of the challenges of using auto/biographical texts as proxies for exemplars in virtue ethics instruction. In particular, it highlights the need for rigorous contextualization when examining narrative accounts of “exemplary science.” We now propose how the social sciences can offer a way out of this impasse, by providing a methodologically rigorous approach to contextualization. In particular, the following sections detail how secondary data analysis of ethnographic studies, in tandem with auto/biographical texts, can prove a valuable resource for students of virtue ethics. In using previously published material we are able to revisit that data with new questions.[43] Ultimately, this serves to make clear where opportunities have been lost and how we can, with a virtue ethics lens, resituate the relationship between virtue and science. Previously published data can include documents such as diaries, written life histories,[44] popular texts, and to some extent the published findings of previous studies. For our case study, we will make use of two key texts: the scientist Kary Mullis’s autobiography Dancing Naked in the Mind Field[45] and Paul Rabinow’s ethnographic study Making PCR.[46] Dancing Naked in the Mind Field provides insight into the motivations, actions, and intentions of the inventor of polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The second text, Making PCR, is an inside look at the people, place, situatedness, and temporal arc[47] of the molecular biology laboratory where Mullis performed his Nobel-winning work. Mullis is often presented to students as an exemplar of scientific discovery. However, Making PCR and his autobiography might indicate otherwise, especially in light of our argument that sees scientists not simply as scientists, but as complex and unique individuals.

A Role for Ethnographies of Science: Considering Kary Mullis

Kary Mullis is a Nobel prize-winning biochemist who is best known for developing the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), unquestionably one of the most important tools in molecular biology. In contrast to many of his peers, Mullis has actively promoted his reputation as an “avant-garde” scientist. He has openly admitted to taking LSD and has railed against the commercialization of science. In recent years, he has come under fire for his views on a wide range of subjects, including AIDS, climate change denialism, and belief in aliens.

Mullis, the News, and Dancing Naked in the Mind Field

Despite these recent controversies, Mullis is widely hailed as a hero for his breakthrough discovery. Until recently, depictions of Mullis in the press were largely the indulgent depictions of an unconventional genius. Most biochemistry students will, at some point, have heard the story of Mullis’s “eureka” moment while he was driving to a cabin in California with his girlfriend. This story is narrated in textbooks, as well as by Mullis himself. In a 1990 article he spent considerable time shaping this narrative, saying:

I stopped the car at a turnout overlooking Anderson Valley. From the glove compartment I pulled a pencil and paper—I needed to check my calculations. Jennifer, my sleepy passenger, objected groggily to the delay and the light, but I exclaimed that I had discovered something fantastic. Nonplussed, she went back to sleep. I confirmed that two to the twentieth power really was over a million and drove on. About a mile farther down the road I realized something else about the products of the reaction. After a few rounds of extending the primers, dissociating the extension products, rehybridizing new primers and extending them, the length of the exponentially accumulating DNA strands would be fixed because their ends would be sharply defined by the five-prime ends of the oligonucleotide primers. I could replicate larger fragments of the original DNA sample by designing primers that hybridized farther apart on it. The fragments would always be discrete entities of a specified length. I stopped the car again and started drawing lines of DNA molecules hybridizing and extending, the products of one cycle becoming the templates for the next in a chain reaction…. Jennifer protested again from the edge of sleep. “You’re not going to believe this,” I crowed. “It’s incredible.” She refused to wake up. I proceeded to the cabin without further stops: The deep end of Anderson Valley is where the redwoods start and where the “ne’er-do-wells” have always lived. My discovery made me feel as though I was about to break out of that old valley tradition. It was difficult for me to sleep that night with deoxyribonuclear bombs exploding in my brain.[48]

In his autobiography, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, as well as numerous biographical texts, Mullis goes on to describe how his then-employer Cetus did not sufficiently recognize or reward his breakthrough (Mullis was only paid $10,000 for his discovery). Both Mullis’s self-presentation and that of numerous other authors position him as a visionary individual whose contribution to science was under-appreciated by his colleagues and employer.

Despite Cetus’s muted enthusiasm, the narrative continues, Mullis continued to work on his PCR invention. Mullis’s tendency to disregard authority—both in this and other cases—is recognized, however; the discovery of PCR is often used as a retrospective justification of this character trait. Consider, for example, this recollection from Dr. Corey Levenson, a former colleague: “Most people who launch into an unfamiliar area would first speak to recognized authorities and get all the background. Kary saw that as a waste of time. He figured it would take less time to do the experiments himself.”[49] Similarly, while Mullis and his then-employer, Cetus, parted acrimoniously, depictions of the split tend to focus on Mullis’s boundless energy and genius winning out against attempts to stifle it. This image of the maverick genius is one that Mullis continues to carefully curate.

Descriptions of Mullis that focus on his invention of the PCR technique valorize the inspiration that Mullis received, his ability to piece together seemingly disjointed pieces of information, and his determination to realize his vision regardless of a lack of support from colleagues or employers. These texts could therefore be interpreted as exemplifying virtues such as reasoning and discovery, as Mullis clearly demonstrates his ability to arrive at new insights and move beyond what was accepted by others. He could also be taken to be an exemplar for the virtue of gnome, or the knowledge of when to act in exception to the law.

This Mullis-centric version of the PCR story is compelling, and continues to spark the imagination of students. Nonetheless, the limitations of this narrative as a reliable source for virtue ethics discussion are obvious. As the biographical texts rely on interviews, they are actively filtered by both narrators and authors. This story is also de-contextualized from actual events. What is undoubtedly missing from these depictions of the invention of PCR is a robust understanding of the socio-political context in which Mullis was working during his time at Cetus as narrated from a transparent, multi-perspectival view. Also missing is an understanding of how and why Mullis came to play the role of the avant-garde genius in the public’s imagination. Rabinow’s ethnography, then, represents a critical corrective.

Making PCR

If we can’t judge scientists solely on their academic output, we need to ask who is telling their stories and why. How do these depictions of “exemplary scientists” fit into broader socio-technical imaginaries of both scientific presents and futures? Making PCR is key for this discussion in that it offers a different depiction of Mullis’s invention, his scientific work, and his character, a depiction that includes his colleagues and managers at Cetus and the era in which these events took place. It also demonstrates that “scientific discovery is not only vulnerable to cliquishness and petty rivalries but is also, in fact, sometimes dependent on them.”[50]

So, what was behind the invention of PCR and how does Mullis’s self-representation of these events differ from that of others involved in this ethnographic account? In exploring the invention of PCR, the people involved, and the organizational milieu in which science was conducted, Rabinow speaks pointedly to the social nature of scientific practice. He problematizes the notion of “who has the authority—and responsibility—to represent experience and knowledge”[51] within this social setting. As he demonstrates through in-depth interviews of colleagues and managers, the authority, responsibility, and representation of the knowledge that became PCR was still, at the time of writing, highly contested. Many of the laboratory technicians and scientists (including in particular Henry Erlich, a senior scientist at Cetus), contend that “PCR is, in fact, one of the classic examples of teamwork. Many people contributed: the people in my lab, various engineers, Gelfand’s group, Sninsky, White. If Kary had acknowledged these people, it would be easier to take.”[52]

Erlich here refers to the Nobel Prize Mullis received independently of anyone else involved in PCR’s development. It seems that “committees and science journalists like the idea of associating a unique idea with a unique person, the lone genius.”[53] In the case of PCR this established a contested reality as Mullis and those that crossed paths with him over the years of PCR’s development foregrounded different narrative moments. Industry labs like that at Cetus were organized specifically to mimic a university setting and reduce any cultural differences between the two spaces. However, unlike academia, Cetus fostered an environment of non-hierarchical interdisciplinarity as “an abstract good”[54] that supported creativity, sharing of ideas, and the fostering of collegiality.

By offering a detailed account of the socio-cultural environment of Cetus, as well as the actions surrounding the development of the PCR technique, Rabinow offers a contrasting narrative to that presented by Mullis and the popular press. Critically reading Making PCR enables students to view Mullis’s actions within their specific socio-cultural context and prevents judging his actions either teleologically or in isolation. Rabinow’s account is perhaps more a narrative of vices than virtues, but nonetheless presents students with a compelling way of understanding good/bad/misconduct within the complicated spaces of laboratories.

Learning to Read Ethnographies for Virtue Ethics

The PCR case study highlights the important role that ethnographies can play in virtue ethics discourse and pedagogy. Nonetheless, many students and educators—both of science and virtue ethics—are unfamiliar with this methodology. In the next section we offer a brief description of ethnography as a methodology, highlighting the specific areas in which ethnographies are useful for the study of exemplars and virtue ethics.

How Does an Ethnography Differ from Other Narrative Accounts of Science?

Ethnographies are studies of social interactions, behaviors, and perceptions that occur within groups, teams, organizations, and communities.[55] An ethnography typically involves the researcher spending long periods of time embedded within a specific culture, documenting and frequently participating in social arrangements and actions. The central aim of an ethnographic study is to provide rich, holistic insights into people’s views and actions, as well as the nature (that is the sights, sounds, and so on) of the location they inhabit, through the collection of detailed observations and interviews.[56] In this way, ethnography contrasts with other empirical methodologies as it generates highly detailed qualitative accounts of a specific context, rather than relying on de-contextualized interviews or recollections of past events.

While ethnographies often focus on a specific topic, they do not set out to test a hypothesis.  Rather, the researchers gather “unstructured data” from their observations and a theory emerges from the analytical categories generated during the data analysis. The typical ethnography is holistic, and therefore includes notes on history, environment and socio-cultural climate. In all cases, it should be reflexive, make a substantial contribution toward the understanding of the social life of humans, have an aesthetic impact on the reader, and express a credible reality.

The ethnographic method is different from other ways of conducting social science approach for a number of reasons:

  • It is field-based and observations take place in situ;
  • The researcher is involved in the daily community life and is thus both an observer and a participant of a society or community;
  • It uses a range of data collection tools, including observation, interviews, and imaging. Data are used to generate descriptive detail from which hypotheses will emerge (inductive);
  • It requires a long-term commitment;
  • It is holistic and aims to yield the fullest possible portrait of the group under study.

Ethnographies thus offer an important contrast to narratives that focus on either “eureka moments” or long-term achievements. Many ethnographies provide detailed descriptions of laboratory practice and enable the reader to understand how laboratories function on a daily basis.[57] This provides readers with a realistic understanding of the complex social landscape of laboratories and the important role that social negotiation and mediation play in successful science.[58] This, in turn, offers a differing perspective on exemplars, as the person who is the most collegial, caring, and critical for the well-being of the laboratory may be the technician or postdoctoral fellow rather than the principal investigator.

Understanding Positionality

When conducting ethnographic studies, researchers will typically embed and immerse themselves within specific cultures. In doing so, they can easily fall into a number of methodological traps that will bias their research. For instance, they can “go native,” meaning that they become too personally involved in the culture and thus lose perspective. Alternatively, they can enter the field with a specific agenda in mind, and therefore bias their study by trying to apply a specific lens to their observations. Because of the difficulties of mediating this position, known as the “insider/outsider problem,” ethnographers spend considerable time and effort in clarifying their “position” within their texts. Good ethnographies provide readers with detailed descriptions of how the researcher gathered and analyzed the data, and how this experience contributed to the final narrative. The conscious positionality of ethnographic authors is of considerable benefit to students of virtue ethics. Interpreting virtuous action is difficult enough when one observes it first-hand. Having to interpret it via the account of another is extremely challenging, particularly when one is not clear on the motivations of the narrator. The transparency offered by ethnographic positionality is an important means of avoiding misinterpretation.

Secondary Analysis of Texts and Datasets

Conducting an ethnography involves using a range of data collection tools, including participant observation, interviews, and imaging. As ethnographies involve inductive reasoning, it can be expected that the ethnographer will generate far more data than will be presented in any written text. These data are curated and stored for future analysis. They therefore represent a valuable resource for secondary analysis, and may be used, for example, to generate detailed case studies about daily laboratory life for use in virtue ethics instruction.

Similarly, the corpus of ethnographies of science can be reanalyzed for use in virtue ethics discussions. Classic texts such as Traweek’s Beamtimes and Lifetimes,[59] while not explicitly focusing on virtue or ethics, provide detailed descriptions of character, social interactions, and power dynamics among scientists in research settings. They therefore offer an important resource for students wishing to understand virtuous action within complex socio-political hierarchies. Indeed, in reviewing many ethnographies of science, we find repeated previously unnoticed opportunities to discuss and analyze ethnographic data in terms of virtue theory. This omission, stemming from the questions being explicitly asked by the authors, does not mean that their data and narratives cannot be reanalyzed for future virtue discussions.

The Future of Ethnographies in Virtue Ethics

The previous sections offered an account of how ethnographies represent a useful tool for virtue ethics instruction by offering a way of accessing exemplary behavior from transparent and contextually-detailed texts. In this way, they represent an important opportunity for instruction in the responsible conduct of research than does not either rely on rule-based systems or teleological/self-reported examples of virtuous/excellent conduct. Nonetheless, there are relatively few ethnographies of science, and even fewer that consider ethical issues. There are none at the moment that offer a virtue ethics narrative for daily laboratory life. In this section we briefly touch on some of the areas that will need to be addressed in order to foster a future for ethnographies in science virtue ethics discourse.

The detailed, contextual descriptions of laboratory life represent an exciting way to expand virtue ethics discussions about the life sciences. Indeed, current discussions often struggle with a lack of contextuality and are reduced to constructing hypothetical lists of “important virtues for science” that are not unlike the codes of conduct generated in deontological responsible conduct of research discussions.  Generating a robust corpus of scientific ethnographies will allow consideration of a number of current challenges for developing a virtue ethics narrative for responsible research conduct. These would include:

  1. Focusing discussions on daily practice as the locus of good/poor/misconduct and highlighting the small social exchanges that cumulatively contribute to positive or negative outcomes;
  2. Breaking the spurious connection between virtue and academic success; offering critical insight into exemplar discussions, not just judged on outcomes, but humanized;
  3. Critically deconstructing spurious boundaries between laboratory/science and the outside world and highlighting the importance of character consistency;
  4. Emphasizing the complicated temporal arc of the socio-cultural-political environment in which any scientist has to operate;
  5. Debunking the idea of the laboratory somehow being a hallowed, sterile and privileged space, and representing it as just as messy as the outside world, perhaps even more so;
  6. Understanding the influence of the power dynamics situated within the hierarchical network of science.

Detailed accounts of daily laboratory life break down the “icons of science” that are regularly offered up to the public to justify trust in science. Ethnographies not only “humanize” these icons and show their fallibility, but also foreground the fact that most of the science that the public comes across is not like that presented as iconic, but is palpably fallible. Increasing exposure (of both students and the public) to ethnographies will enhance the awareness, acceptance, and gainful valuation of scientific failures as well as successes.

What Kinds of Ethnographies are Needed for Scientific Virtue Ethics?

In light of the shift toward postmodern interpretive ethnography, we recognize a number of ethnographies outside of the Science and Technology Studies literature that explore the moral discourse of the contemporary world—for example, Daniel Chambliss’ Beyond Caring[60] and Cheryl Mattingly’s Moral Laboratories.[61] While other ethnographies are situated in virtue ethics,[62] Mattingly and Chambliss are distinctly focused on the moral worlds of individuals who are working towards being a particular type of person in their community. For Chambliss this involves an understanding of the “moral geography of hospital nursing”[63] and in Mattingly’s work this amounts to “cultivating virtues to be, for example, a ‘good enough’ parent.”[64] Such works are important as they offer insight into what could constitute a virtue ethics ethnography of science.

Chambliss is distinctly concerned with the moral world of nursing within an organizational setting—the hospital. In this space, he outlines the context of what “normal” looks like for nurses in their daily practice and how this changes their perspective of what moral issues are at stake, as compared to a layperson. Ultimately, as paid employees of the hospital nurses are expected to have a level of submission to higher authorities and organizational policies. This creates political conflict between their moral imperative as good nurses to provide care and the organization’s authority over broader ethical decisions. This entanglement of politics and ethics within an organizational setting is very relevant to laboratory science, and detailed studies of how the physical, social, and organizational structures of laboratories affect scientists’ autonomy and agency are needed. In particular, such studies are vital to constructing robust understandings of how to evaluate “virtuous behavior” within contexts—assuming that the environment plays an active role in shaping possible behavioral outcomes.

Mattingly, meanwhile, offers a detailed description of African American families in Los Angeles and the care required to raise good children and be good parents. She argues that moral thriving “depends on the cultivation of wisdom that will allow an agent to discern what is worthy to pursue in her life amid various circumstances”[65] and, importantly, within a community. Studies such as these, which focus on the communal development of norms and meaning, are of considerable importance to science virtue ethics.  These notions of worth are, in other words, intersubjectively held within members of a community.  Moral assumptions are not exclusive to the individual. Scientists, like nurses or parents, do not work alone or in a vacuum; they work with others within their unique setting.

Mattingly points the way for understanding how character is cultivated in everyday life. For instance, what sometimes appears mundane or invisible “must be placed within a larger temporal arc,”[66] or, as we discussed in a previous section, the broader socio-political contexts that underpin the situation. It is through the negotiations of everyday performances that moral deliberations and transformations take place. The seemingly mundane day-to-day activity of laboratory work can precipitate moral tragedy, not because extreme situations are happening in unusual circumstances, but rather because of ordinary, seemingly innocuous moral dilemmas that occur in the larger temporal arc of, for example research funding, the activities leading to the production of knowledge, and the social life of the lab. Studies that interrogate the entangled nature of politics and ethics within an organizational setting are of critical importance for the future of scientific virtue ethics discourse. Indeed, virtue ethics needs ethnographies that provide a credible account of a cultural, social, individual, or communal sense of the “real.”[67]


This chapter has explored the use of ethnographies in discussions on responsible conduct of research.  Ethnographies are largely overlooked by educators and ethicists alike, yet represent a wealth of detailed contextual material about daily laboratory life that can be put to work in virtue ethics discussions. While we recognize that ethnographic texts can be intimidating to those unfamiliar with the methodology, we hope that our brief discussion on how to read ethnographic texts will interest others in examining these texts further. We feel that virtue ethics discussions will be considerably strengthened by the incorporation of these valuable texts. Their use in teaching as exemplar studies will also enable virtue ethics to avoid the pitfalls of current science ethics pedagogy, namely de-contextualization and a teleological focus on final outputs and successes over daily practice.

LOUISE BEZUIDENHOUT is a research fellow at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society at the University of Oxford. She holds a Ph.D. in Cardiothoracic Surgery (Univ. of Cape Town), a Ph.D. in Sociology (Univ. of Exeter), and an M.A. in bioethics (KU Leuven). She works on the Changing Ecologies of Knowledge and Action project. Her research interests are broadly centered on data-sharing issues within the life sciences and on how the data produced during scientific experimentation enters into circulation and is valued by potential downstream users.

DORI BEELER holds an M.A. in Sociocultural Anthropology and a Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology from Durham University in the UK. Currently, she is a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on a NIH T32 training grant on Cancer Epidemiology, Prevention and Control. Her research interests span the cancer control continuum with an interest in social determinants of health. In particular she uses qualitative, life-experience-oriented interview techniques to provide a patient-focused understanding of cancer treatment and survivorship, including breast cancer, genetic and hereditary cancer risk, and pediatric cancer(s). She has also conducted laboratory ethnography in molecular biology with an interest in the experimental process and science education. This work was completed in collaboration with funding from the training grant: T32 CA 009314 (PI: Platz).


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  1. This publication was made possible through the support of a grant from Templeton Religion Trust. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Templeton Religion Trust (grant number TRT088). The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
  2. See Editorial, “Reducing Our Irreproducibility,” Nature 496.7446 (2013): 398.
  3. E.M. Meslin, “Bioterrorism and Bioethics: Challenges for Industry, Government and Society,” Journal of Commercial Biotechnology 9.2 (2003): 101–09.
  4. Such as National Academies of Science, On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2012).
  5. David Resnik, “Ethical Virtues in Scientific Research,” Accountability in Research 19.6 (2012): 329.
  6. Larry Alexander and Michael Moore, "Deontological Ethics," in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta (Winter 2016 Edition), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/ethics-deontological.
  7. Immanuel Kant, "First Section: Transition from the Common Rational Knowledge of Morals to the Philosophical," in Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1785 [1959]).
  8. Tom Beauchamp and James Childress, Principles of Biomedical Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).
  9. Kant, "First Section: Transition from the Common Rational Knowledge of Morals to the Philosophical,” 9.
  10. In 2000 the Office of Science and Technology Policy defined misconduct as “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism (FFP) in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results” (http://www.ostp.gov/html/001207_3.html).
  11. National Research Council, Challenges and Opportunities for Education About Dual-Use Issues (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2011).
  12. Adil Shamoo and David Resnik, Responsible Conduct of Research (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  13. Resnik, “Ethical Virtues in Scientific Research.”
  14. National Research Council, Challenges and Opportunities for Education About Dual-Use Issues.
  15. Jeffrey Taubenberger, et al, “Initial Genetic Characterization of the 1918 'Spanish' Influenza Virus,” Science 275.5307 (1997): 1793–96.
  16. Barry Barnes, Interests and the Growth of Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1977); Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979).
  17. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986).
  18. Earlier framings of science promoted the notion of an objective, value-free science that was based on “evidence and reasoning, not on moral, political or other values” (David Resnik and Kevin Elliott, “The Ethical Challenges of Socially Responsible Science,” Accountability in Research 23.1 (2016): 32).
  19. Helen E. Longino, Science as Social Knowledge (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Heather Douglas, “The Irreducible Complexity of Objectivity,” Synthese 138.3 (2004): 453–73.
  20. Contemporary discussions about value-laden science tend to focus predominantly on non-epistemic values—moral, political, social or economic—in scientific judgement and decision-making. In particular, the rise in policy governing scientific research increasingly raises questions about the roles that non-epistemic values can and should play in research design, application and re-use. The influence of non-epistemic values on research has been increasingly well-documented by STS researchers in fields such as stem cell research, synthetic biology and reproductive technologies (Olivia Harvey, “Regulating Stem-cell Research and Human Cloning in an Australian Context: An Exercise in Protecting the Status of the Human Subject,” New Genetics and Society 24.2 [2005]: 125–35). In contrast, while epistemic values have long been recognized as important in scientific research, the role of non-epistemic values in data-generating research activities remains contentious. The Sociology of Scientific Knowledge movement strongly promoted the notion of social constructivism, as is well-described in, for example, David Bloor, "Sociology of Scientific Knowledge,” in Handbook of Epistemology, edited by Ilkka Niiniluoto, Jan Wolenski, and Matti Sintonen (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004), 919–62. Nonetheless, many contemporary authors continue to promote a “value-neutrality” within epistemic activities to safeguard reproducible and reliable data production. See Harding, The Science Question in Feminism; Resnik and Elliott, “The Ethical Challenges of Socially Responsible Science.”
  21. Harry Collins, Are We All Scientific Experts Now? (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2014).
  22. Elaine Howard Ecklund, Science vs Religion: What Scientists Really Think. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  23. Louise Bezuidenhout and Nathaniel Warne, “Should We All Be Scientists? Re-Thinking Laboratory Research as a Calling,” Science and Engineering Ethics 24.4 (2018): 1161–79.
  24. Larry May, The Socially Responsive Self: Social Theory and Professional Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
  25. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 29.
  26. Resnik, “Ethical Virtues in Scientific Research.”
  27. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).
  28. Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
  29. James Laidlaw, The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
  30. Ibid.
  31. For example: Bruce MacFarlane, Researching with Integrity: The Ethics of Academic Inquiry (London: Routledge, 2008); Resnik, “Ethical Virtues in Scientific Research”; Louise Bezuidenhout, “The Relational Responsibilities of Scientists: (Re)Considering Science as a Practice,” Research Ethics 13.2 (2017): 65–83.
  32. Christine Swanton, Cultivating Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 2.
  33. Julia Annas, Intelligent Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 16.
  34. Swanton, Cultivating Virtue, 2.
  35. Annas, Intelligent Virtue, 17.
  36. Robert Pennock and Michael O’Rourke, “Developing a Scientific Virtue-Based Approach to Science Ethics Training,” Science and Engineering Ethics 23.1 (2017): 245.
  37. Ibid., 249.
  38. Ibid., 250.
  39. The difficulties of using historical exemplars in teaching ethics to scientists is also well-elaborated in Kuebler’s chapter in this volume. While he recognizes the value of Pennock and O’Rourke’s proposal to use virtue ethics to adapt RCR teaching to foster internal motivation for ethical behaviour, he highlights the limitations of using texts instead of role models in situ.  He says: “While this can be helpful, the training would be more impactful if a real-life role model is seen as invested in the scientific virtue-based approach training and leads these scientific virtue-based reflections.”
  40. Bezuidenhout, “The Relational Responsibilities of Scientists.”
  41. Bezuidenhout and Warne, “Should We All Be Scientists?”; Louise Bezuidenhout, et al, “Docility as a Primary Virtue in Scientific Research,” Minerva 57.1 (2018): 67–84.
  42. Annas, Intelligent Virtue, 20.
  43. Janet Heaton, “Secondary Analysis of Qualitative Data: An Overview,” Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung 33 (2008): 33-45.
  44. David Silverman, ed., Qualitative Research (London: Sage, 2016).
  45. Kary Mullis, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field (London: Bloomsbury, 2010).
  46. Paul Rabinow, Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
  47. Cheryl Mattingly, Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).
  48. Kary Mullis, “The Unusual Origin of the Polymerase Chain Reaction,” Scientific American 262 (1990): 61.
  49. Nicholas Wade, “Scientist at Work/Kary Mullis: After ‘the Eureka,’ a Nobelist Drops Out,” New York Times, September 15, 1998, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/09/15/science/scientist-at-work-kary-mullis-after-the-eureka-a-nobelist-drops-out.html.
  50. Eugenia Tsao, “Walking the Walk: On the Epistemological Merits of Literary Ethnography,” Anthropology and Humanism 36.2 (2011): 186.
  51. Rabinow, Making PCR, 17.
  52. Ibid., 161.
  53. Ibid.
  54. Ibid., 36.
  55. Scott Reeves, Ayelet Kuper, and Brian David Hodges, “Qualitative Research Methodologies: Ethnography,” BMJ  337 (2008): 1020a.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Latour and Woolgar, Laboratory Life; Michael Lynch, Art and Artefact in Laboratory Science: A Study of Shop Work and Shop Talk in a Laboratory (London: Routledge, 1984); Sharon Traweek, Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988); Karin Knorr Cetina, Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
  58. Bezuidenhout, et al., “Docility as a Primary Virtue in Scientific Research.”
  59. Traweek, Beamtimes and Lifetimes.
  60. Daniel Chambliss, Beyond Caring (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
  61. Mattingly, Moral Laboratories.
  62. For example, see Arthur Kleinman, What Really Matters: Living a Moral Life Amidst Uncertainty and Danger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) and Paul Brodwin, Everyday Ethics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).
  63. Chambliss, Beyond Caring, 10.
  64. Mattingly, Moral Laboratories, 5.
  65. Ibid., 9.
  66. Mattingly, Moral Laboratories, 117.
  67. Laurel Richardson, “Evaluating Ethnography,” Qualitative Inquiry 6.2 (2000): 253–55.


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