The following is a summary of visitor responses and comments on the case study presented on the Web site between April and June, 1999. It is intended to be a factual portrayal of trends and individual comments without editorial input from EERI staff.
Review The Situation:
Dr. Smith, a public administration professor at State University, has an ongoing research grant from a state agency to investigate determinants of effective emergency response at the state and local levels. The study also involves response coordination with federal agencies.
Immediately after a damaging US earthquake, he sends a research team into the field to observe the activities of the various governmental agencies, including the coordination of support resources, the sharing of information, and the process of decision making. The team observes a number of actions that do not follow previously developed disaster response plans. In general, these actions seem ineffective on the part of the funding agency.
It becomes apparent to administrators from the agency that Dr. Smith’s team will develop a report that is critical of their operations. The administrators demand that Dr. Smith discontinue his research on this event and not publish his findings.
Dr. Smith considers this an issue of academic freedom. However, he also realizes that his department and many of his students depend on the continued grant money for this and other related projects from the state agency.
Assuming Dr. Smith will discuss the situation with other members of his department before proceeding, what actions should he consider?
The respondents’ comments indicated that central to this case was the dilemma involving three main issues: 1) the contractor/client relationship, 2) public safety, 3) the need to maintain funding for this or future projects.
The suggested actions depended largely on the readers’ own perceptions of the case. If the agency’s actions truly posed (and presumably would pose again in the future) a threat to public safety, then the professor would have an obligation to present the facts. If the actions were substandard, but not necessarily dangerous, then the professor should present the report in a positive tone, acceptable to the agency, so that meaningful improvements could be made while retaining the client relationship.
Most recommended actions involved continuing discussions with the agency. A large number of readers agreed that the primary obligation of both stakeholders is to determine if there is a risk to public safety, and if so, find the best means for remedying the situation.
Readers were asked to rate several possible actions – considering the interests of all stakeholders – based on the following scale. The actions are listed in no particular order, and the rating for each action is the average of the ratings gathered.
5 — Strongly Agree 4 — Agree 3 — Neutral 2 — Disagree 1 — Strongly Disagree
- Dr. Smith should comply with the request of the funding agency to terminate the study. Average Rating: 1.6
- Dr. Smith should reconsider and "soften" the results of the study. Major deficiencies could be represented in a less critical manner. The facts of the study could be represented in a more positive tone, focusing on areas where "improvement" could be made. In his opinion, the study would not be accurate, but would be palatable to both sides. Average Rating: 3.0
- Dr. Smith should consider submitting the report to the agency and allowing them to edit and/or delete portions of the results prior to publication. Average Rating: 1.0
- Dr. Smith should go to his contact at the agency to express his outrage over this violation of research "ethics" and attempt to reverse the agency’s decision. Average Rating: 2.9
- Dr. Smith should go to his contact at the agency and attempt to find a compromise solution in which the results of the study can be used to improve the agency's performance whether or not the report is eventually published. Average Rating: 4.2
- Dr. Smith should complete and publish the critical report regardless of the funding ramifications. Average Rating: 3.1
Readers were asked what additional information would have put them in a better position to pick an alternative.
Based on the readers’ comments, the following is a listing (in no particular order) of relevant information that would have helped Dr. Smith make a better decision:
- Information on the reasoning behind the agencies actions at the time. Did the disaster require alternative actions beyond the scope of the response plan? Were individuals rather than the entire agency acting contrary to the plan?
- A general idea of the magnitude of the problems uncovered. For example, did the agency’s actions have consequences or omissions that could have threatened the safety of individuals or hindered the response process?
- Information on the contract agreement between the professor and the agency.
Readers were then asked to offer a suggested course of action for the professor. The following is a brief summary of the suggestions. As is the nature of ethical dilemmas, there is no right or wrong answer, and many courses of action could be considered equally valid depending on individual values and/or interpretation of events.
Respondents suggested a large range of actions, all of which fit into four broad categories.
- Discuss situation and possible solutions with the funding agency. This could help clear up misunderstandings about the reasoning behind the agencies response. Also, a discussion could focus on promoting an interest on the agency’s part to improve.
- Publish the report information is a positive tone (similar to action "b"). Use the report for improvements rather than focusing on criticisms of the response. Perhaps the facts could be presented in general terms without referring to the specific event and without making any interpretations.
- Prepare a confidential critique of the response that the agency could use to make internal improvements.
- If the agency’s response was truly detrimental to the emergency situation, then Dr. Smith should publish a factual but fair report that could put pressure on the agency to improve.
Comments on Questions for Further Thought:
Finally, readers were asked to respond to the following:
Does it make a difference that this is a situation in academia rather than a professional client relationship? Is there a notion of academic freedom that would not necessarily exist in the professional disciplines?
- The comments were mixed, with a majority opinion that there should be no difference. These readers seemed to hint that central to this case is the contractor/client relationship, regardless of whether the contractor is an academic or professional.Another group of respondents stated that there is, in fact, a difference. Professionals serve a client and are therefore can be bound by this relationship, unless there is an overwhelming public safety concern. Whereas in a research project, the academician has certain freedoms to pursue research and report it in an open forum.However, many of the comments from respondents on both sides of this issue stated or implied that the same ethical dilemma would exist for both an academic and a professional: a dilemma involving the balance between three issues – the obligation to a client, the obligation (perceived or real) to protect public safety, and the need to retain funding for future work (whether public research or private contracts).