Reflecting on including environmental aspects in research integrity and ethics

Date: 16 September 2020

Author: Judith Krauss (SIID), Stephen Allen (Management), Renee Timmers (Music), Phil Warren (Animal and Plant Sciences) and Matt Watson (Geography)

(c) Luke Scoffield

How important is it to reflect on environmental aspects as part of research integrity and ethics?

On 5 June 2020, an online-only workshop supported by the University of Sheffield’s Research Ethics Committee took place to begin answering this crucial, but challenging question.

The workshop, which was organised collaboratively by the authors, was conducted virtually through Blackboard Collaborate. The participants were from a diverse range of disciplines at the University of Sheffield (including, Neuroscience, East Asian studies, Animal and Plant Science and Philosophy), different geographical backgrounds and career stages (PhD researchers to Professors).

The workshop included contributions on environmental campaigning, carbon accounting and Higher Education activities in the ethics and environment space. It was intended to initiate a conversation within the University about the potential inclusion of environmental aspects into research ethics and integrity, if we should be doing this, and how this could be achieved. The outputs generated included a report (available from and a creative summary by artist Luke Scoffield (enclosed with this blog).

Listening to learn

The first contribution came from Professor Fraser MacBride, Chair of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Manchester. He reflected on his successful experience of campaigning for an environmental policy within his discipline, explaining the motivations and principles underlying the document.

The British Philosophical Association’s environmental policy is now supported by 23 departments and 7 learned societies and commits signatories to researching responsibly given accelerating climate change.

Significantly, among a multitude of emails that Fraser received in response to his requests for support, none raised significant ethical questions along the lines of ‘What do we owe future generations/nature?’ – there was a general acceptance of a debt.

Objections rather focused on what the policy would mean for personal or professional lives, referencing employers’ emphasis on travel through promotion and probation processes, the heavy reliance of academia/REF on international networks, the potential limitations of an individual’s actions, or annoyance that the policy was not radical enough.

The second contribution was from Professor John Barrett, Chair in Energy and Climate Policy at the University of Leeds, who explained how a very sharp decline in carbon emissions is required to attain net zero in the UK by 2040, but how this rapid decline is not happening. He highlighted how carbon accounting at an organisational level includes both direct emissions (ie company-owned vehicles, fuel combustion) and indirect emissions (eg purchased electricity/materials, waste disposal, employee travel).

Reflecting on his involvement in carbon reduction initiatives at the University of Leeds, he described how an analysis by Townsend and Barrett (2015) showed that around 80% of carbon emissions are indirect emissions (eg occurring in the supply chains of purchased goods and services), over which the University has less control. Nevertheless, the University makes decisions about how to manage their buildings, a high contributor, departments decide how to organise labs, principal investigators define how research grants are spent (eg is budget allowed for low-carbon travel or procurement options?).

A key message was not to give responsibility for carbon emissions solely to Sustainability Services, but to embed this responsibility across the University, eg through questions around ‘Have you considered …?’ at the point of purchase, or in procurement forms. From John’s experience, asking questions and monitoring activity can raise awareness and reduce carbon even without a hard target.

The third contribution by Judith Krauss, supported by the rest of the organising team, illustrated how various ethics and integrity frameworks and policies (eg EU 2013, UKRI 2013, UKRI n.d.) include references to the environment as part of a broader ‘do no harm’ principle. However, this does not necessarily translate, eg in the REF or in universities’ ethics policies, into systematically considering the potential ecological consequences of the choices made about how research is completed.

A notable exception that was mentioned is the ethics approval process by the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences and its explicit consideration of the climate emergency and other environmental considerations. Conversely, many environmental measures eg around reducing flying (Tyndall or University of Iceland travel policies) do not make explicit any ethical or moral reasoning.

The two drivers – ethics/integrity vs. ecological initiatives – start from different places and would require careful integration to be able to respond to a key question: if we wish to integrate environment with research integrity and ethics at the University of Sheffield, how do we do this in ways that are generative and constructive and not ‘just’ a box-ticking exercise?

Let’s apply this to our work

In the second part of the workshop, small group discussions firstly acknowledged considerable environmental impacts of our research, ranging from flying via plastics used in lab settings or working with endangered species and habitats, to electricity for on-campus work.

Secondly, there was widespread strong agreement, especially in line with student voices, that these environmental impacts are very much ethical considerations. Importantly, ethics specialists emphasised that, since the University of Sheffield's research ethics policy is concerned only with research involving human participants, they would have to be considered under the research integrity remit.

Thirdly, it was agreed that there is a critical need for education and action across the University beyond any formal processes and policies, though there is a need not to place additional excessive burdens on individuals/early career staff and recognise that different disciplines have different needs. For example, including a slide in research presentations about carbon emissions generated through the completion of the research could start to highlight possibilities for change in research culture.

Also, it is important to recognise positively when individuals make decisions about research activities (eg not flying to a conference) which are based on clear environmental considerations. There was also discussion about potential lighter-touch research integrity evaluations of all research projects to take into account environmental aspects.

So what do we do now?

In summary, there was broad agreement that it is important to consider the environment as an important intrinsic element of research integrity and ethics. Participants suggested that they found the workshop to be a useful space for learning and discussion, which encouraged them to pursue action in their respective contexts. Their one-sentence summaries of key take-aways included wanting to change departmental policies, showcasing people who complete their research in environmentally conscious ways, and the need to make institutional change happen across the board, including in career progression processes.

The workshop highlighted the far-reaching implications of taking climate change seriously and the need to make this a collective priority. Whilst there is a role for grassroots initiatives and personal action, change is particularly required at a collective and institutional level, where environmental considerations are taken into account in the support, funding and career development structures.

Since the workshop, the organising team have begun to take this conversation forward within the University of Sheffield, particularly in processes of reviewing research integrity policy, as well as through the Sustainability Delivery Group.