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UC Berkeley professors must show students the importance of ethically sound research

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MARCH 22, 2019

At UC Berkeley, students in the sciences look to their professors as mentors as they attempt to navigate the often overwhelming field of research. But what should students do when these same mentors fail to impart the importance of ethics in their work?

Last week, protesters gathered on campus for Mauna Kea Awareness Day to protest the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on top of the Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii. Despite pushback from many Indigenous Hawaiians who view the land as spiritual and sacred, the project will continue — with UC Berkeley’s support.

It’s appalling that the campus’s astronomy department failed to meet with protesters that day to address their concerns. Ignoring the history and the cultural value of this land sets a poor example for students who look to researchers to show them right from wrong.

Scientists must be informed on and willing to acknowledge the social impacts of their research. If the vision of the telescope is to be “an inclusive and scientific approach to address some of the world’s most complex scientific, philosophical, technological, and practical problems,” then these scientists cannot ignore the historical communities impacted by the project. Their research choices should have been informed by Indigenous Hawaiians who have been asserting that the land is sacred and spiritual.

Future scientists will look toward this scientific research as a model to emulate, and people who aspire to work on the telescope should be informed about the consequences — regardless of whether the project is legal. If UC Berkeley’s researchers do not address the ethical concerns with building the telescope before construction is well underway, they’ll set a dangerous precedent for how students will learn about scientific research.

Campus scientists must recognize that their role as educators extends beyond the basic teaching methods. These mentors should be educating students about how humanity is impacted by their research. Scientific research that’s detached from humanity perpetuates oppressive values in the name of “progress.”

This is something that UC Berkeley researchers have repeatedly failed to understand in the past. On this campus, physicists created the world’s first atomic bomb, and anthropologists kept a Native American man captive to be put on display in a museum. And these mistakes have continued into the present day — UC Berkeley currently holds about 12,000 Indigenous remains in the Hearst Gymnasium’s basement, and a biology professor who believes that HIV does not cause AIDS continues to teach classes on campus.

As one of the nation’s top research institutions, UC Berkeley’s leaders must set a responsible precedent for future scientists. In order to truly better our society, scientists must acknowledge and learn from past failures.

As influential mentors, it is crucial that professors show their students how to push for innovation without making ethical compromises.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.

MARCH 22, 2019