POSTED: January 23, 2017
Cover of Melissa Lane Essay

Professional Ethics in the Mirror. A response to Melissa Lane

Professor Lane opens her essay with a question – “Whose job is it to save the planet?”. While she does list a few individuals who may have this in their job description her essay explores the role of the responsibility for all professions towards this end.

If we turn her question on its head – “Whose job is it to destroy the planet?” then we uncover an interesting challenge. A challenge in particular for those of us deeply engaged in the new Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity. Turning the question inwards, to ourselves as academics and scholars, may be unconventional and also uncomfortable, as David Orr (1991) reminds us “many things on which our future health and prosperity depends….. is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs.

So while saving the planet is only in a few individual’s job description, destroying it is in no one’s job description. Too often the destruction of ecosystems, collapse of biodiversity, carbon emissions driving climate change, runaway inequality, lack of social cohesion and so on, are driven by well-meaning and highly educated individuals who have failed to reflect on just what their education and accumulated knowledge is for. Both Melissa Lane and David Orr agree that education carries with it a responsibility to ensure that it is used wisely, but this is a responsibility often shirked by academics and their host institutions hiding behind the veil of academic freedoms. In 2005, for example, HEFCE’s, suggestion that students should ‘develop the values, skills and knowledge to contribute to sustainable development’ was branded as ‘the final assault on the last remaining freedom of universities’ by Peter Knight, then Vice Chancellor of the University of Central England. It seems freedom, even to unintentionally destroy the planet, is inviolable.

Nevertheless, we continue to hear calls for a transformation both of and in education, a transformation which will require fundamental changes to both what and how we teach and students learn. UNESCO’s four pillars of learning; learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be, can be a useful model but it will require taking education beyond ‘knowing’, which has been the focus of education in formal western education for at least the past two centuries. Learning with the head, the heart and the hands is becoming a guiding principle of pre-school education and a principle which all education could usefully borrow.

Research too can learn from this approach, as Alexander Humboldt explains ”It is not enough to know Nature, you need to feel Nature in order to understand it”.

Academic research contributes to a better understanding of the world from the nano scale to the cosmological. However, academic careers are often measured on paper publications regardless of whether anyone has ever read or, perish the thought, done something different as a result of reading those papers. While the intention behind moves, particularly by funding agencies and governments, to measure the impact of research is still in its infancy, too often academics, especially those in the early stages of their careers, complain on blogs, social media and at conferences, about their commitment to engagement with the ‘real world’ being frowned upon by their academic seniors.

It is important to stress that academic research should not have to demonstrate its real world impact at every stage. Indeed academic ‘blue skies’ research is vital to the creation of long term changes in our understanding of the world and everything around us. However, we must value the creation of impact as highly as we do ground breaking new ideas and concepts in academia.

We, as academics, must also own the impact we create. Even if that impact is unintentional. We must take responsibility for the action, or lack thereof, from the knowledge that we disseminate. The recent back-and-forth in economics is an interesting case. Whether economics is in crisis or not, surely economists cannot just step back and say that their discipline was never intended to be used in those circumstances. As David Miles wrote recently in the Financial Times “If existing economic theory told us that such events should be predictable, then maybe there is a crisis”. That may be true but then an academic has to say in advance of crisis that their models should not be used to set policy, advise financial markets or central banks when it cannot be used to test the systems to destruction if those policies, markets and banks are intended to prevent the destruction of the system.

Similarly climate science and its communication has had a turbulent career over the past couple of decades with a few notable exceptions. Trying to outline the limitations of models may fall into the hands of climate ‘deniers’ however not articulating what a model is and is not for also gives support to those who easily point to the failures to ‘predict’. It is not a simple conversation to have with those in power – but as we, more often than not, educated those in power then that is also one of our failures to allow people to understand or explain complex issues quickly and succinctly.

What role does academia have in ensuring its research outputs are used (or at least understood) as intended and how do we ensure that those we educate become true global citizens? At the very least we should be enabling individuals to make a proactive decision about their part in the destruction, or saving, of our planet. We may disagree fundamentally with how to change the system but maybe, at this time of various global challenges, we should grasp the opportunity to define an academic professional ethical frame.

Sustainable prosperity will only be delivered by people willing to engage with and challenge the current system. Indeed in a future world if we have to measure our success as a society through measures of growth then perhaps the key measure should be a growth in knowledge.

“Knowledge is replacing other resources as the main driver of economic growth, and education has increasingly become the foundation for individual prosperity and social mobility.” Harvard President Drew Faust speaking in 2010.

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