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I am defending my PhD thesis soon and have been told to practice some questions that I should expect, one of which is:

What are the ethical implications of your work?

How should I go about answering this?

My field is ocean physics, and my thesis has focused on investigating the causes of high temporal resolution variability in ocean temperature. How could I tackle this question in the defense?

  • Practicing questions is very good: you might ask a friend to help you practice dealing with unscripted questions, particularly 'unfair' questions. Who suggested the ethics question? – Charles Stewart Dec 9 '14 at 11:29
  • The ethics question was shown here: open.ac.uk/blogs/ResearchEssentials/?p=156. Q19 of this list. – Emma Tebbs Dec 9 '14 at 11:45
  • Ethics questions are a staple in research involving studies on human subjects, and they are also relevant if your work might be relevant for policy recommendations or business decisions. It's not obviously relevant for ocean physics, but it is good to practice unexpected qns. – Charles Stewart Dec 9 '14 at 11:53
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    @CharlesStewart I'm not so sure I agree with that. I don't think it's useful to practice handling completely unexpected questions, because with high probability the only reason you would be asked such a question is if the examiner is trying to trip you up, and in that case there is no way you could possibly be prepared for everything they may ask. Your time is better spent preparing for the expected or likely questions. (Example: for my own thesis, in high-energy physics, it would have made no sense to prepare an answer to "What are the ethical implications of your work?") – David Z Dec 9 '14 at 13:09
  • @DavidZ: The aim is to learn to stay cool under pressure, not to prepare useless answers. I use the technique in coaching - it works. – Charles Stewart Dec 9 '14 at 13:12
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I'm not an ocean physicist, or anywhere qualified in oceanography, nor do I have a slight idea of what your topic is on.

That being said, research involving water, and any political ramifications that may impact it, typically will impact commerce related to the oceans.

In this case, theoretical commercial impacts:

  1. Fishing. Your research may potentially result in a ban on fishing, or make it harder to obtain fishing licenses.
  2. Trade commerce. Ships are still used to transport goods around the world, including oil. As above, any sort of research that indicates that the oceans may be unsafe or bars certain trade routes will result in economical impacts down the line.
  3. National borders. Traditionally, countries own a specific amount of shoreline before international waters. A shifting shoreline may result in a changing border and or possible border disputes.
  4. Tourism. Obviously, effects of the water, even perceived, may impact tourism.
  5. Insurance. Rising tides = rising premiums.

Whether or not these apply to your topic, I can't really tell, but it's better to start with a list of things and then check them off as irrelevant gives the no ethical impact argument more weight.

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My knowledge of Oceanography stops at "there is an awful lot of water", so I don't know for sure, but if I was asked this question, I will flatly say there are none. Maybe you would like to justify it a bit, but don't get lost; if asked, it is a mean question.

On a related note, I do have an answer in case someone, specially when talking to a general audience, tries to make political comments.

Stars [or proteins, oceans, particles...] don't care about politics.

And move on. I only had to use it once during a class, but having it in the reserve did gave me peace of mind when I was interviewed by a politically loaded radio station.

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