Heather Douglas

Heather Douglas

Monday, 26th October 2020 at 15:00, Virtual Seminar
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Heather Douglas, Michigan State University

Responsibility and Accountability in Science


Some authors presume that responsibility is internal to science (how the scientific community manages its obligations to each other) whereas accountability is external to science (institutional mechanisms of enforcement for behavior). I argue here that this view is mistaken. Both responsibility and accountability have internal and external aspects to their functioning within science. Scientists have responsibilities to each other and hold each other accountable for particular standards. Scientists are also accountable to people and institutional structures outside of the scientific community and have responsibilities to those who are not scientists. Rather than internal vs. external being the appropriate difference maker for accountability and responsibility, it is the nature of the obligation and how it gets enforced that makes the difference. Accountability involves clear standards and clear enforcement mechanisms. It usually involves minimum floors for acceptable actions as well. If one falls below that floor, that clear minimum standard, one can expect to bear the brunt of some negative consequences. Responsibility, on the other hand, can involve both minimum floors and ideals to which one strives, but never reaches. It should shape how one evaluates the choices one makes overall, assessing their worth, with respect to the range of moral obligations one has. Clarifying the difference between responsibility and accountability informs how institutions and individuals should grapple with the complexities of doing science.


Heather Douglas is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University.  She received her Ph.D. from the History and Philosophy of Science Department at the University of Pittsburgh in 1998, and has held tenure-line positions since then at the University of Puget Sound, the University of Tennessee, and the University of Waterloo.  She is the author of Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal (2009) as well as numerous articles on values in science, the moral responsibilities of scientists, and the role of science in democratic societies.  Her work has been supported by the National Science Foundation.  In 2016, she was named a AAAS fellow.