February 2018

A brief reflection on geoscience ethics codes

  • By David M Abbott Jr FAusIMM(CP), AIPG Ethics Columnist and Ethics Chairman Emeritus; and AusIMM Ethics Committee member

Ethics codes are an important tool that help reassure the public of the expertise and integrity of professionals. While the AusIMM represents resources professionals from all disciplines, this article looks at the importance of ethics codes for geoscientists.

Professional organisations representing geoscientists, including those founded in the 19th century like AusIMM, generally have membership requirements that include some stated amount of professional education and perhaps experience. These requirements were and are, at least in part, intended to provide assurance to the public that the organisation’s members can be relied on to act competently and honestly. However, professional ethics codes were not initially part of these organisations’ formal documents. The American Association of Petroleum Geologists, founded in 1917, adopted an enforceable Code of Ethics in 1924 to address the increasing number of oil and gas frauds. Other professional geoscience organisations have adopted ethics codes more recently, often in the last 60 years. These codes provide additional assurance of professional practice and those backed by disciplinary proceedings provide means for addressing fraudulent or incompetent practice.

Bernard Gert, in his book Common Morality: Deciding What to Do (2004), points out that there are two kinds of moral statements, rules that must be followed at all times, and aspirational statements that encourage but do not require a particular activity. An example of a moral rule is ‘Do not injure.’ An example of a moral aspiration is ‘Contribute to the fight against cancer.’ Gert also provides a procedure for determining when a moral rule can be morally violated, for example, doctors are allowed to injure by performing surgery in order to avoid or mitigate greater injury.

Ethics codes differ from statements about general morality by being written statements. Ethics codes frequently contain both rules and aspirational statements. The AusIMM Code of Ethics contains both. Clause 9, ‘Members of the AusIMM shall comply with all laws and government regulations relating to the minerals sector and shall keep up to date with relevant laws in jurisdictions in which they conduct business, and members dealing with public companies shall comply with the rules, regulations and practices governing such companies as are published by the relevant stock exchange from time to time’ is a rule requiring compliance. Clause 3, ‘Members of the AusIMM shall, on all occasions, act in a manner which upholds and enhances the honour, integrity, honesty and dignity of the profession’ is largely an aspirational statement – although being dishonest is a clear violation.

Clause 8, ‘Members of the AusIMM shall continue their professional development throughout their careers …’ is an aspirational statement and one that is common in many geoscience ethics codes. However, increasing numbers of geoscience organisations are now requiring that at least some class of members engage in a specified minimum amount of professional development, thus converting an aspiration to a rule. For example, AusIMM Chartered Professionals are now required to complete a professional development program while for other membership classes, the continuing professional development remains an encouraged, aspirational activity.

Protecting the public versus confidentiality

One of the most important points Gert makes in Common Morality is that moral or ethical analysis cannot decide all ethical or moral questions. This results from different people giving different weights to various morally or ethically desirable principles. The result is that people on either side of a debate can have thoughtfully considered bases for their opposing positions. Two principal provisions in most geoscience ethics statements are:

  • protection of the public’s health, safety, and welfare (public protection)
  • maintaining the confidentiality of an employer’s or client’s confidential information (confidentiality).

These two provisions can come into conflict if the employer or client is proposing or is doing something that is adverse to public protection.

The AusIMM Code of Ethics Clause 1 state that in conducting their professional activities, ‘the safety, health and welfare of the community shall be the prime responsibility of members.’ The principle here is that the interests of the community have priority over the interests of others. It follows that members shall:

  • Avoid assignments that may create a conflict between the interests of their client or employer and the public interest.
  • Work in conformity with acceptable technological standards and not in such a manner as to jeopardise public welfare, health or safety.
  • In the course of their professional life endeavour to promote the wellbeing of the community. If their judgement is overruled in this matter they should inform their client or employer of the possible consequences and, if appropriate, notify the proper authority of the situation.

Clause 1 makes clear that public protection is the more basic and overruling principle when conflicts with confidentiality arise. The General Guidance for Members section of the code addresses this issue explicitly.

The International Association for Promoting Geoethics

The International Association for Promoting Geoethics (IAPG) approved the ‘Geoethical Promise’ on 26 October 2016 as part of the results of the 35th International Geological Congress in Cape Town. The IAPG defined geoethics as ‘research and reflection on the values which underpin appropriate behaviors and practices, wherever human activities interact with the Earth system. Geoethics deals with the ethical, social and cultural implications of geosciences knowledge, education, research, practice and communication, and with the social role and responsibility of geoscientists in conducting their activities.’ The IAPG issued its ‘Geoethical Promise’ that summarises its ‘Fundamental Values of Geoethics’. This is intended to be like the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath, to be adopted by early-career geoscientists to promote respect for geoethics values in geoscience research and practice.

Just how the aspirational statements of the ‘Geoethical Promise’ and the ‘Fundamental Values of Geoethics’ apply to day-to-day geoscientific practice varies with the statement. Adherence to basic concepts like honesty, integrity, competence, transparency, strict adherence to scientific methods and life-long learning have been part of geoscience ethics codes for a long time. The aspiration to ensure the sustainability of the supply of energy and other natural resources for future generations conflicts with the fact that the supplies of energy and other natural resources are depletable and that individual deposits have a limited extent. This conundrum appears in the various papers I’ve read that address resource extraction in the spirit of the geoethical values.

The last of the ‘Fundamental Value of Geoethics’ states ‘Promoting geo-education and outreach for all, to further sustainable economic development, geohazard prevention and mitigation, environmental protection, and increased societal resilience and well-being.’ While geoethics may address the intersection of geoscience, sociology, politics, and human welfare, geoscientists are not experts in all these areas. Albarello’s 2015 book chapter, ‘Communicating uncertainty: managing the inherent probabilistic character of hazard estimates,’ makes an important ethical point regarding geoscience predictions (Albarello, 2015). As geoscientists, we should effectively communicate the probabilities of a geohazard event occurring. But we are not the policy makers deciding what the public should do. Doing so, or being viewed as having done so, leads to the legal troubles of the seismologist defendants in the L’Aquila, Italy trial (the subject of another chapter in the same geoethics book in which Albarello’s chapter appears).

Specialised provisions in some ethics codes

In addition to the ethical principles commonly included in ethics codes, some codes contain more specialised provisions. Some organisations that publish a lot of papers, books, etc include provisions on the ethics of publishing. The American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) provisions for publication ethics are an example. The American Statistical Association’s Ethical Guidelines for Statistical Practice states that stated principles apply to ‘all other disciplines who use statistical methods in their professional work’ (2016). Geoscientists often use statistical methods and are included within these ethical guidelines.

One of the major distinctions between professional ethics for geoscientists compared to other professions that have strong ethical codes (eg doctors, lawyers, biologists etc) is that geoscientists do relatively little work with living research subjects. However, there have been some recent discussions surrounding the potential impact that geoscientists’ work has on people and communities, and these discussions are worth considering in light of ethics for geoscientists.

Therefore Scown et al’s 2017 article, ‘People and water: exploring the social-ecological condition of watersheds of the United States’ caught my eye. The first two sentences of the abstract state ‘A recent paradigm shift from purely biophysical towards social-ecological assessment of watersheds has been proposed to understand, monitor, and manipulate the myriad interactions between human wellbeing and the ecosystem services that watersheds provide. However, large-scale, quantitative studies in this endeavour remain limited.’ This is an example of the sort of study that some geoscientists may be becoming engaged in and for which the ethics of working with living subjects may well be appropriate. Those geoscientists engaged in such studies should look to the ethical provisions of those professions that regularly deal with living research subjects. There may be a time in the future when enough geoscientists are working with living subjects that appropriate provisions may be added to geoscience ethics codes. For the moment, incorporation of such ethical principles by reference will be the recommended approach. This recommendation is like the similar incorporation by reference to the AGU’s provisions for publication ethics.


Comparison of various professional geoscience organisations’ ethics codes shows many similarities in topics despite differences in the codes’ organisation and wordings. Basic concepts like honesty, integrity, competence, transparency, strict adherence to scientific methods, provisions for conflicts of interest, respect for one’s colleagues, and life-long learning have been part of geoscience ethics codes for a long time. Other provisions, like those on publishing, are restricted to a few organisations that do a lot of publishing. The most recent ethics code provisions envision far more interaction between geoscientists and the public in areas like geohazards, long-term access to natural resources and the environmental effects of human existence. While such intersections are worth consideration and study, there are limits to what geoscientists can and should do.

Present codes serve an important purpose in reassuring communities of the expertise, professionalism and integrity of geoscientists’ work, and as public perceptions change we need to ensure our codes continue to protect the public from incompetent or unethical behavior.

Feature image: TippaPatt/Shutterstock.com.

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