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Robert Neubecker

Why I stopped turning a blind eye to the ethics of my research—and personal life

This summer, I killed a bird while on a research trip. The project leader and I were sitting under a tree, protected from the hot sun, while we placed leg bands on birds we had just caught. I hadn’t handled a bird in a year, and I was nervous that it would escape. I held the bird tightly as it struggled in my hand. Then, as I readjusted my grip, I saw it was lying limp. “Is he OK?” I asked the project leader in a shaky voice. I handed her the bird and she looked down uncomfortably, setting it on the ground. We both stared at it, wishing the wind blowing its chest feathers was actually its heartbeat returning.

I’m not an ornithologist; I’m a Ph.D. student who studies soil biology. But I had worked on birds as an undergraduate student, and I was assisting the project leader, a close friend, with her research. I make the cross-country trip each year to help her and welcome it as a fun change of pace from my usual fieldwork, which involves digging up soil samples from agricultural fields.

This year, though, the experience left me in turmoil. It’s not uncommon for animals to die when biologists catch them—and some scientists consider this an unavoidable cost of doing research—but the knowledge that I had taken a life nagged at me. I felt ashamed of my mistake and agonized over the bird for days.

After I traveled back to my university and reoriented myself to my dissertation research, I realized that I had more on my conscience than the accidental killing of one bird. I regularly capture and preserve huge numbers of soil invertebrates (mites, beetles, and other critters) for my research; this summer alone I killed more than 10,000. I had turned a blind eye to this invertebrate massacre. But as I resumed my normal work, sorting and categorizing hundreds of vials of dead invertebrates, the conflict between my methods and my values increasingly weighed on me.

I face similar struggles in my personal life. Before grad school, I was dedicated to walking or biking around town and buying food from local and organic sources. In grad school, where I’m pressed for time and money, I drive more often and have become increasingly relaxed about my consumer choices. Conventionally farmed bananas shipped thousands of kilometers to Vermont are often the easiest and cheapest snack option I can find, even though eating them while I research sustainable agriculture feels enormously hypocritical.

Scientific research can make a real difference in the world. But I’ve come to realize that the life of a scientist comes with ethical trade-offs, including ones that aren’t easy to stomach—or avoid. Some scientists, such as myself, may debate the ethics of methods that could harm or kill animals. Others may struggle with whether it’s the right choice to fly around the world to meetings about
climate change.

As researchers, we must be mindful of the ethical dimensions of our work.

I entered my Ph.D. program because I care deeply about environmental conservation, and I want to stay grounded and true to those motivations. But I am not perfect. I’ve made compromises between getting research done and following my personal values. Although these compromises can be necessary and practical, I sometimes look back and wonder whether I cut the wrong corners. The unfortunate reality is that in grad school, moments of reflection are sometimes difficult to come by. Juggling classes and research, jumping through various Ph.D. milestones, and learning technical and professional skills—on top of worrying whether my research is novel, relevant, and impactful—leave me little time and emotional space for much else.

Going forward, though, I want to be more deliberate about these ethical considerations. I plan to ask myself whether my methods are truly necessary and to think more carefully about ways to minimize harm or risk.

The death of this bird hit me as a wake-up call, forcing me to reflect and recalibrate. In grad school, it’s easy to be consumed by pressures and demands. But it’s important to have moments where we can step back and reconnect with our values. As researchers, we must be mindful of the ethical dimensions of our work.

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