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Is there a general rule about what a postdoc or graduate student can or cannot refuse to do because of personal convictions?

I assume that there must be institution-specific rules, but also maybe legally defined limits? I know that (fortunately!) in most countries, a supervisor cannot "force" a student or postdoc to do something that goes against their religious convictions, for example, but there can be grey areas that are not as protected as religious belief; what about personal opinions and life choices?

For example, I am wondering if personal convictions are a valid and protected reason to refuse:

  • Experimenting on animals
  • Applying for defense/military funding (e.g. DARPA)
  • Collaborating with companies with discutable ethics
  • Working on any type of dual use research
  • Conducting experiments that generate significant amounts of pollution

Most of the time this kind of ethics dilemma can be avoided by carefully choosing a laboratory. But not always - money can be tight, reviewers can ask for animal validations after submission... So I am wondering if there is a rule of thumb for determining what is a "reasonable" reason to refuse an academic project based on moral arguments.

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    If a supervisor only has DARPA funding, and a grad student does not want to work under that grant, well, that is a choice the student can make. The choice has consequences, however... – Jon Custer Dec 18 '18 at 22:31
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    At least for the US, as I understand it, the legal protections around religion are not as strong as you suggest. If you have religious objections to part of your job, the employer is required only to make "reasonable accommodations" that do not pose them an "undue hardship". If, for instance, the whole lab is based around animal experimentation, and there isn't enough non-animal work to keep one person busy full time, then they can legally tell you to do the animal work or be fired, your religious objections notwithstanding. – Nate Eldredge Dec 18 '18 at 23:59
  • Anecdote: as a postdoc, I flat out refused to scrape or deal with data scraped from yelp. Not really "illegal", but not certainly legal either (even if researchers usually don't get sued for that). Nothing bad happened, except for a few quips here and there (not rising to harassment). – Fábio Dias Dec 19 '18 at 2:01
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Is there a general rule about what a postdoc or graduate student can or cannot refuse to do because of personal convictions?

I'm not a lawyer, but anyway I doubt many countries would have laws for this. If anything, I think this is more a matter of institution policy.

First, it's important for a person to be hired as postdoc or as a PhD student to do their due diligence: they are supposed to know what can reasonably be asked from them before signing the contract. If some of it challenges their personal convictions, they should discuss it beforehand with the PI and warn them about what they don't want to do. The PI might end up hiring somebody else instead, but this is a risk to accept.

In the case where the conflict between the personal ethics and the job was not foreseeable, the first thing to do is (again) to discuss it with the PI: they are likely to understand the objection and often find an alternative option.

But if there is no agreement at this level, then it has to be settled by the institution procedures. This would completely depend on the institution policy and the nature of the moral objection, obviously. In general I assume that the institution would try to find a compromise satisfying for everyone, for instance by assigning the person on another project. However it's worth mentioning that most academic institutions have ethics committees in place. My intuition would be that if the study requiring the task objected to was granted approval by the ethics committee (as it should have), then the institution would be entitled to ask the person to perform the task or quit the job.

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Standard IANAL disclaimer (I’m speaking from anecdotal experience and could be very wrong).

I had a student who recently refused to work on a political dataset because of her political views. I could’ve told her that this was a material part of our work and she has to do it or I can’t advise her. I don’t think there would’ve been any repercussions to me if I did. Generally speaking, if an advisor doesn’t want a student the reasons why aren’t very relevant, it’s best to part ways.

Eventually I chose not to and assigned her to another project. Did her academic progress suffer as a result? Sure. She made a choice and is paying some price for it.

For funding/collaboration, I can hardly see what legal protections could exist. If you choose not to apply for a DARPA grant or work with anyone there, you can’t reasonably argue any grievance as a result. Say, if you’re up for tenure, saying that you didn’t secure any funding but that’s only because you refuse to work with DARPA sounds preposterous.

A similar case goes for boycott movements (e.g. BDS). My field (computer science) has a very strong Israeli presence; if you’re a BDS supporter it may limit your future academic prospects. No one can force you to collaborate with Israelis, but in some cases, it may become very difficult.

In the end, nothing in life is free, and you need to decide how important are your personal convictions vs the price of following them.

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You can certainly refuse to do unethical things. But be prepared to argue the ethics and, if necessary, study up on the necessary background to do so.

However, there are coercive environments in which the pressure to conform can be very severe. But some of the topics you list may indicate that you are not in a field that is compatible with your beliefs and understanding. If, for example, animal research is common in your field, you might want to start looking for an exit route that will get you to a place with fewer conflicts, both personal and interpersonal.

But no one here can guarantee you that following an ethical path will always be the best path to professional advancement. But there are some things that need to be resisted.

On the other hand, some of your examples may not be as strong as you would like. For example, some people work trying to improve the ethics of the companies that they are in. The recent "revolt" at Google is an example. Also, DARPA doesn't always do bad things. In essence it produced the internet (or its predecessor did).

Also, different people may judge these cases differently. I suggest that you follow your own convictions and work, over the course of your career, to improve the situation you find in the world.

  • Don't worry about me, I am financed by military projects AND I work with animals, and none of these things bother me :) But some colleagues in microbiology, who did not expect to work with anything multicellular, ended up doing animal work by necessity - gut microbiota etc. These things are not always predictable years in advance. – Mowgli Dec 18 '18 at 21:17
  • Regarding the "strength" of the arguments, that's somehow the root of my question: it is up to each individual to decide whether the good produced by a company/organization outweights the bad (you seem to consider that it can but others may disagree) and I'm asking whether there is any "written" rule about whether personal opinions are protected in research and academic hierarchies – Mowgli Dec 18 '18 at 21:19
  • You need, as an individual, to decide what you can participate in. No one can (or at least should) make you do otherwise. If you disagree with someone who is refusing to assist in things they consider unethical and have some power over them, I recommend you think very hard about it before you try to force them. The consequences can be dire, from unhappy workers to sabotage and from depression to suicide. – Buffy Dec 18 '18 at 21:23
  • But if you are asking a legal question, you need to get local legal advice. No one here can help you with that. And, it goes beyond "personal opinions". A person's ethical foundation isn't the same as "Coke or Pepsi?" The world is a better place if we respect that (and respect each other). – Buffy Dec 18 '18 at 21:26
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    Some people have ethical beliefs that I consider flat wrong, or at least wrongheaded. So far, arguments some of them apparently consider strong haven't convinced me. While I can respect such beliefs to some extent, I might have limited patience in accommodating what I consider a fringe belief. What you refer to as a coercive environment might be seen by the people involved as trying to get some work done without a lot of extra hassle from someone with weird beliefs. – David Thornley Dec 18 '18 at 22:58

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