Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Ethics and Geosciences: 
discovering the International Association for Promoting Geoethics

interview with Silvia Peppoloni (IAPG Secretary General)  

(by Jonathan Rizzi)

This article was published in the blog of the Natural Hazards (NH) Division of the European Geosciences Union (EGU) at:

Geoscientists do not have to deal only with technical matters, but have to think also about the ethical implications related to their discipline. To increase the awareness of researchers on the ethical aspects of their activities, it has been created the International Association for Promoting Geoethics (IAPG). To better understand what geoethics and the IAPG are, we interviewed Silvia Peppoloni, founder member and Secretary General of the association. She is researcher at the Italian Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology and her activity covers the fields of geohazards and georisks. She is also elected councillor of the IUGS – International Union of Geological Sciences (2018-2022), member of the Executive Council of the IAEG Italy – International Association of Engineering Geology and the Environment, lecturer to international conferences, editor and author of books and articles,. She has also been awarded with prizes for science communication and natural literature in 2014, 2016 and 2017.

Can you clarify what is geoethics?

Geoethics is defined as the "Research and reflection on the values that underpin appropriate behaviours and practices, wherever human activities interact with the Earth system. Geoethics deals with the ethical, social and cultural implications of geoscience knowledge, education, research, practice, and communication, and with the social role and responsibility of geoscientists in conducting their activities".

This definition includes aspects of general ethics, research integrity, professional ethics, and environmental ethics. It reminds to geoscientists about individual ethical conduct, which is characterized by the awareness of being also a social actor, of possessing a scientific knowledge that can be put to the service of society and employed for a more functional interaction between humans and the Earth system.

Silvia Peppoloni
(IAPG Secretary General)
Can you introduce the IAPG and its importance?

The IAPG – International Association for Promoting Geoethics was founded in 2012 to provide a scientific, multidisciplinary platform for widening the discussion and creating awareness about ethics in the geosciences. It has now more than 1800 members in 123 countries on 5 continents. In its 5 years of activity, IAPG has worked to transform geoethics from a movement of opinion into a real scientific thought. IAPG has provided geoscientists with a set of reference values, methods and tools, able to guide their actions and increase their awareness about the importance of their role in society.

To date, IAPG has been involved in more than 80 international events and cooperates with other international organizations whose aims are complementary, such as IUGS, AGU, GSA, GSL, AGI, IAH, AAWG. An active blog and a newsletter update members regularly on activities, publications, events. The IAPG Young Scientists Club, formed by geoscientists under 35, represents the interface between the Association and early-career scientists, aimed at introducing them to geoethics but also to receive inputs from them and to know their needs, expectations, doubts. IAPG can count on 28 national sections whose purpose is to coordinate efforts in promoting geoethics and enlarging the IAPG network in each country. The IAPG has a Board of Experts, consisting of qualified geoscientists, each of them with competence on a specific theme such as geo-resources, georisks, engineering geology, risk communication and education, research integrity, geoparks, and geoheritage, etc. Recently, IAPG has established a Task Group on Responsible Mining, that has already produced a guiding document. In our website, there are many resources (documents, articles, books, and tools) for free download.

Can you tell more about the Statement on Geoethics and the Geoethical Promise?

The Cape Town Statement on Geoethics is an important and internationally recognized document, released by the IAPG at the end of 2016. This document summarizes fundamental values of geoethics and ethical duties of geoscientists, such as:

  • Honesty, integrity, transparency, and reliability;
  • Competence, including regular training;
  • Sharing knowledge at all levels;
  • Working with a spirit of cooperation and reciprocity;
  • Respecting natural processes and phenomena;
  • Respect for the scientific method, being rigorous in verifying the sources of information and data, and applying objective, unbiased peer-review processes to technical and scientific publications;
  • Promoting geo-education and outreach to further sustainable economic development, geohazard prevention and georisks mitigation, environmental protection, and increased societal resilience and well-being.

The statement includes also the "Geoethical Promise", addressed to early-career geoscientists modeled after the Hippocratic oath of medicine. The formula of the promise summarizes all the concepts and the values of geoethics.

I'm convinced that the promise may support younger geoscientists in their acquisition of a clear and binding awareness of their ethical responsibility.

In 2018, the promise will be available in about 30 different languages. In Italy, the promise has been included as official declaration during the ceremony for the geological master degree in the Italian Universities, thanks to the cooperation of the IAPG Italy and the Geological Society of Italy. We hope to get the same result in other countries.

Why is it important to join the IAPG?

Thanks to all my colleagues working with me in the IAPG, geoethics has become a firm point at the EGU’s General Assembly and in several of the biggest geoscience events in the world. Nowadays, all the most important geoscience organizations recognize the importance of geoethics and the IAPG is considered an international reference point. Geoethics is becoming a new meeting point for geoscientists from all over the world, reinforcing the sense of their scientific activity and the awareness to belong to the same scientific community.

It is important to join IAPG to continue in doing all this. It is fundamental that our scientific and technical activities are also accompanied by an ethical and social reflection, to understand under all circumstances what is right or at least acceptable to do, why and how to act for the benefit of society and the safety of the environment. It is important to join the IAPG to feel strongly that beyond the cultural, social and economic differences, there are values that belong to all humans, that we can recognize as universal and share altogether. These values unite geoscientists from both developed countries and low-income countries, who work in more difficult political and economic conditions, many times without the freedom to make ethical choices in conducting their activity. There are unimaginable geological problems in their countries with very high impact on communities: natural disasters affecting hundreds of thousands of people, lacking safety regulations in mining, unstoppable pollution, strong soil degradation, water, and energy scarcity. Dedicating oneself to geoethics is also a duty to use our geological knowledge to help them to solve those problems. For all these reasons I invite all to join the IAPG, there is no fee to pay and to contribute to our activities in the own area of expertise.

Why ethics is important in geosciences?

There are disciplines that for their intrinsic nature have strong ethical and social implications: I’m thinking of biology and medicine. The same goes for geosciences, since they deal with the greatest global, environmental, challenges on the planet. And geoscientists cannot ignore these aspects. Our work on the territory, our scientific results may have a great influence on the lives of people, on local and national economy, and we must be aware of this. Sometimes, our technical decisions are able of moving millions of euros. Deciding where and how to place a dam can heavily influence the future development of an area. But are geoscientists aware of their great responsibility? What do their responsibility consist of? My research on geoethics started by the search of answers to these questions and this is the main reason that pushed me to devote myself to geoethics, to found the IAPG, to change the way in which we intend the geoscience practice, and to propose a vision for future years. All this might seem like an utopia, but we are now facing an epochal change of values, and we need also utopias.

Any recommendation to Early Career Scientists in the field of Natural Hazards?

I would like to suggest them to responsibly wonder about the deeper sense of their work.

When they will start to work in the field of natural hazards, they should always ask themselves: how can we best assist society? On which values of reference we, as experts of natural hazards, have to ground our activities? Let’s wonder: What is our responsibility, as risk experts, towards society? In which way can we support society against georisk?

Ability, individual and joint responsibility, collaborative attitude, reliability, transparency, impartiality: these are basilar values capable of allowing scientists to develop good science. Making good science is the essential prerequisite in geoscience practice. In addition, modern science requires to be good science communicators, capable of engaging with communities to build effective disaster risk reduction strategies.

It is  helpful to make geoscientists more aware of their responsibilities towards society and to clarify the role they can play in the interaction with other actors: decision makers, local authorities, government agencies, mass media, citizens. All these actors form a "defence system" that have to act with a common goal and in the same direction, each of them with clear and specific roles and responsibilities.

Geoscientists have to work so that values as prevention, safety, sustainability, education take root into society. or example: for those who works in the risk communication field, it is important to pay attention in making the population able to understand the scientific and technical language. For scientists studying risk scenarios, it is important that their models are well-grounded on observational data, including clear indications of their uncertainties, and before release, these models are discussed within the scientific community. For those involved in establishing protocols and procedures to be followed in risk management, it is important that those tools foster the cooperation among different categories of experts (engineers, geologists, disaster managers, etc.). For those employed in the educational field, it is fundamental to develop effective strategies and actions, able to transfer appropriate and timely information on risk scenarios and consequences of unpreparedness.

So, in each field of work, there is the possibility and the necessity to act ethically. Geoscientists possess the proper knowledge for bringing science closer to society. It is their task to make society aware that science cannot be the solution to all our problems, but it can give us helpful tools for our safety.

Becoming an IAPG member is easy and free!!!

IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics: