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Responsible Research at Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vents and beyond

July 5, 2009

bluebreeze-fixed_logosouthernfriedsquareInterRidge, a global organization of hydrothermal vent biologists, has, over the last several years, established a set of guidelines for responsible research practices at deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Along with many scientists, several nations and commercial organizations have signed onto this statement. Although tailored to deep-sea science, these guidelines are broadly applicable to any science program that requires field work.

1) Avoid, in the conduct of scientific research, activities that will have deleterious impacts on the sustainability of populations of hydrothermal vent organisms.

Obvious, really. It does no good to understand an ecosystem if, in the process of studying it, you completely destroy it. Scientists can be pretty poor conservationists, and the desire to get just one more sample, to crack open one more rock, or to dig just a little deeper, can be overwhelming.

2) Avoid, in the conduct of scientific research, activities that lead to long lasting and significant alteration and/or visual degradation of vent sites.

This goes right along with number 1. Don’t destroy the site, but also avoid permanently altering it. If you can sample without causing lasting damage, you may want to reconsider sampling at all.

3) Avoid collections that are not essential to the conduct of scientific research.

Again, don’t overharvest. Understand the statistics you’l be using to analyze your data and don’t sample more then you need to do robust science. If all you need is an N of 30, why collect 300? Before you even reach the site, you should discuss and decide on both your lower and upper sampling limits. Otherwise you’re wasting resources and removing a piece of the system you’re trying to understand unnecessarily.

4) Avoid, in the conduct of scientific research, transplanting biota or geological material between sites.

Another no brainer, but one we often forget. How many times do you walk from one field site to another in muddy boots? How often do we wash deitritus of the deck of the ship after sailing miles away? It just takes one transplanted species to wreck a system.

5) Familiarize yourself with the status of current and planned research in an area and avoid activities that will compromise experiments or observations of other researchers. Assure that your own research activities and plans are known to the rest of the international research community through InterRidge and other public domain data bases

Something else that can be easily overlooked. Though I don’t think this one goes far enough. You can’t assume everyone will dopcument their experiements in a public database. You have to do the legwork yourself. Make sure you know who works at the site you’re going to and what experiments are on going. This should be one of the first things you do when you settle on a research site or project. It protects their work and it makes sure you don’t go out and do something that’s already in process.

6) Facilitate the fullest possible use of all biological, chemical and geological samples collected through collaborations and cooperation amongst the global community of scientists.

This is the place for me to get on my soap box. I don’t care what you funding agency, research institution, or program directors say, nobody owns data. The data you collect is part of the collective totality of human knowledge, and if you don’t ensure that that information is made reasonably available to the public, either through publication, databasing, or access to raw samples, as far as I’m concerned, you’re stealing from the entire human race. Yes, there’s always roadblocks to total disemination, and yes, you have to work around your institution’s rules and regualtions, but you also have to make an active effort to get that data to the world.

I think a variation on these guidelines should be adopted by all scientist who do field work. At the very least it will serve to remind us that as scientist, we do have an environmental impact, and we need to do everything in our power to minimize that impact.

~Southern Fried Scientist

5 Comments leave one →
  1. whysharksmatter permalink*
    July 5, 2009 9:49 am

    I really like these guidelines, and I agree that they are applicable to just about any fieldwork.

    However, like with fisheries regulations, rules based on the best science don’t help unless they are enforced. What happens if someone doesn’t follow these rules? Is there some sort of Interridge certification program for people who do follow them?

  2. July 5, 2009 1:08 pm

    I like the ethics involved. I have a roommate studying biology, going to pass it along to her.

    Also, not to be “that guy”, but re-read your sentence after number 5.

  3. July 5, 2009 2:33 pm

    I like these a lot, and they definitely apply to all fields of study. As scientists, we often forget that our very presence, let alone research, at a site can have an impact, and we need to be careful as to what that impact is. Sometimes, we can do a lot of harm before we even realize it.

    I think, for example, that there is some belief that amphibian research might have aided the spread of chytrid fungus. Back before it was known or understood that chytrid fungus existed, healthy frogs were housed with infected species for research and then released back into their native, previously uninfected areas. And even now there is worry that scientists carry the fungus from site to site on their boots or equipment while trying to study the outbreak, allowing the fungus to cross what would otherwise be impassible barriers like salt water or wide rivers.

  4. Mako permalink
    July 5, 2009 11:12 pm

    Good post. Its good to be reminded on ethical research practices. Since I work as a fisheries researcher in Florida that does ALOT of field work, I can certainly see your point. Love the blog. BTW, I also write a fisheries blog. You should check it out:


  1. OH, FOR THE LOVE OF SCIENCE! » Blog Archive » Carnival of the Blue #27: The Vacation Edition

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    The Southern Fried Scientist

    Andrew is a graduate student in North Carolina studying deep sea biology. When not in the lab, he spends his time out on the water, usually swearing at his boat while simultaneously sacrificing some important tool to Poseidon in a desperate attempt to make the motor start. That is, assuming he can get his truck running long enough to actually put the boat in the water. He enjoys long walks on the beach, by necessity. Follow him on Twitter @SFriedScientist.


    David is a graduate student in South Carolina studying shark conservation. He is the author of the upcoming book “Why Sharks Matter: Using New Environmentalism to Show The Economic And Ecological Importance of Sharks, The Threats They Face, and How You Can Help”. His time is divided between educating the public about sharks, spending days at a time at sea playing with sharks, and eating horribly unhealthy foods. Follow him on Twitter @WhySharksMatter.

    bluegrass blue crab

    Amy is a graduate student in North Carolina studying local ecological knowledge within the blue crab fishery. She spends half her life studying the most charismatic of organisms - humans - and the estuaries on which they depend. While not contemplating grand social theories, she enjoys a good jam session and watching sunsets over the estuary. Follow her on Twitter @bgrassbluecrab.

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