Assessing ethical trade-offs in ecological field studies

Journal of Applied Ecology 47 (1):227-234 (2010)

Fabien Medvecky
University of Sydney
Katie Steele
Australian National University
Summary 1. Ecologists and conservation biologists consider many issues when designing a field study, such as the expected value of the data, the interests of the study species, the welfare of individual organisms and the cost of the project. These different issues or values often conflict; however, neither animal ethics nor environmental ethics provides practical guidance on how to assess trade-offs between them. 2. We developed a decision framework for considering trade-offs between values in ecological research, drawing on the field of ecological ethics. We used a case study of the population genetics of three frog species, in which a researcher must choose between four methods of sampling DNA from the study animals. We measured species welfare as the reduction in population growth rate following sampling, and assessed individual welfare using two different definitions: (i) the level of suffering experienced by an animal, and (ii) the level of suffering combined with loss of future life. 3. Tipping the tails of tadpoles ranked as the best sampling method for species welfare, while collecting whole tadpoles and buccal swabbing of adult frogs ranked best for the first and second definitions of individual welfare, respectively. Toe clipping of adult frogs ranked as the worst sampling method for species welfare and the first definition of individual welfare, and equal worst for the second definition of individual welfare. 4. When considering species and individual welfare simultaneously, toe clipping was clearly inferior to the other sampling methods, but no single sampling method was clearly superior to the other three. Buccal swabbing, collecting tadpoles and tail tipping were all preferred options, depending on the definition of individual welfare and the level of precision with which we assessed species welfare. 5.Synthesis and applications. The decision framework we present can be used by ecologists to assess ethical and other trade-offs when planning field studies. A formal decision analysis makes transparent how a researcher might negotiate competing ethical, financial and practical objectives. Defining the components of the decision in this way can help avoid errors associated with human judgement and linguistic uncertainty.
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