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Good Science Starts with Good Ethics

Young woman looks at EPA's Facebook pageThe social media world was rocked recently when a paper published in a scientific journal revealed that Facebook had been manipulating users’ news feeds to determine whether the concept of “emotional contagion” was the same in virtual contexts as it was in person. You know how the whole office lights up when one person gets flowers? Researchers wanted to confirm the hypothesis that the same kind of emotional transfer can happen in a virtual context devoid of non-verbal cues. Turns out: it can.

The problem with this study isn’t the science—it’s the ethics of the research. Specifically, the complaint is that investigators never obtained informed consent from Facebook users to participate in this research study.

Why should that matter? Here’s the problem: without giving members the option to choose whether or not they wanted to participate in research, the investigators treated people simply as a means to an end—in this case, to verifying their hypothesis. And there’s no guarantee that the researchers’ ends were the same as mine.

We treat many things as a means to an end—we use planes, trains, and automobiles to get us from place to place, and we use food and water to nourish our bodies. But people are not like autos or apples: people have interests, desires, and preferences. I am the only one who truly knows what my values, goals, and priorities are, and therefore I’m the only one who can decide whether or not participation in research coincides with those goals.

Facebook points out that users agreed—via the fine print—to participate in this kind of work when they agreed to the terms of service. But that argument doesn’t work either. Nobody can agree to unspecified future research; after all, how would one be truly “informed” about research that the investigators haven’t even imagined yet? The best that can be expected is that individuals can agree to be contacted for future research—and that’s what should have happened here.

Some would argue that there are no real “risks” here—they were not injecting anyone with a drug, or asking them to exercise to the point of exhaustion, or even asking them potentially sensitive survey questions. And because there are no risks, they claim, they didn’t need to ask permission.

But think about how it makes you feel to know that your news feed—and therefore your emotions—may have been manipulated without your knowledge or consent. Do you feel hurt? Confused? Violated? That’s a natural consequence when investigators fail to abide by an important ethical foundation of human subjects research known as respect for persons. The investigators failed to recognize that their subjects were autonomous individuals capable of self-determination and therefore had a right to opt out of this study.

At EPA, we take the informed consent process seriously. Whether you’re approached to be part of a study in our Healthy Heart program, or to help investigators understand more about how the environment affects your child’s asthma, EPA scientists will first explain the research to you so that you can judge whether or not participation makes sense for you and your family.

Good ethics starts with good science. But as we learn from this example, good science needs good ethics, too.

About the Author: Dr.Toby Schonfeld is EPA’s Human Subjects Research Review Official and the Director of the Agency’s Program in Human Research Ethics and Oversight.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Social Media Magic

As an environmental policy major at the University of Maryland, I knew I’d found the perfect internship at the Office of Web Communications.

Working here is showing me a whole new side to the sites and applications I spend so much of my time on. My normal day on social media includes some frankly pathetic attempts at humor on Twitter, some carefully selected photos on Instagram, and an overwhelming amount of posts with sub-par grammar on Tumblr. How EPA uses social media, however, is a whole different story.  Where my “hilarious” tweets fall flat amongst my small following of friends, EPA’s tweets convey important health and environmental information that reaches thousands and get shared constantly.

Take my first day at EPA for example, Monday, June 2, 2014, the day Administrator McCarthy announced the new Clean Power Plan. I’m not exaggerating when I say the internet EXPLODED.  There were tweets, Facebook shares, and comments upon comments of the public’s reactions all flooding in at top speed. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed, but also very intrigued by social media on this scale.  The following week proved to be even more interesting as I got to work on some of EPA’s posts myself. Nothing was more gratifying than seeing a post I helped write on the official EPA Facebook page!

A selfie Maddie took at her desk at EPA.

After just one week here, I’m beginning to see a new picture form about the social media sites I thought I knew so well. I’ve come to realize that social media is not just for teenagers and their endless (beautiful) selfies, but it is a way for the whole world to keep connected to today’s important issues. As I got a chance to explore all the social media outlets the EPA has to offer (check them all out here), I realized that social media is not just about shares and retweets, but is more about participation. Having today’s most important news stories readily available invites a conversation that gets everyone involved. Whether it’s a comment on a Facebook post, a retweet on Twitter, or a video on YouTube, EPA has some great ways to encourage an important conversation with the world.  I am so excited to see and learn more about social media and EPA during my summer here!

About the author:  Maddie Dwyer studies environmental science and policy at the University of Maryland. She works as an intern for EPA’s Office of Web Communications.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Got a Smartphone? EPA Has Launched an App to Keep You Safe in the Sun

Growing up outside of Baltimore in the late 70s, I spent the summers at the pool, cutting lawns in the neighborhood without a shirt, and riding my bike for hours. I’m paying for it now. I’ve had seven basal cell carcinomas (the least dangerous skin cancer) removed in the past five years, including three from my forehead. I’ll be going to a dermatologist twice a year for the rest of my life. You know that young men like to compare scars – well, add my childhood scars to my skin cancer scars, and I can top anyone.

After spending many years working on waste reduction issues, I came over to a part of EPA that works on healing the ozone layer and teaching kids how to be SunWise. The ozone layer acts as a kind of sunscreen for the Earth, so while it’s healing, we want to prevent skin cancer by teaching kids, their teachers and parents how to be safe in the sun.

We’ve been using the UV Index for years to forecast the strength of the sun’s UV rays—the higher the Index, the more important it is to be sun safe. Just this year, we developed a UV Index widget and put the Index on Facebook. So, you can check your friends’ status and the sun’s, and plan for a SunWise day.

Now we’re making it even easier for you to check the UV Index when you’re on the go with EPA’s smartphone applications. Of course, we’re hoping people download these free applications on their mobile phones.

I still enjoy the outdoor activities I did as a kid – especially biking – and am proud of my small collection of really nice Italian bikes. What has changed is that I am now SunWise and take better care of my skin. A lot of people are SunWise nowadays, too – including my kids. With tools like the smartphone applications, we are making it easier for folks to be smart in the sun.

About the author: Robert Burchard is a program analyst for EPA’s Stratospheric Protection Division in the Office of Air and Radiation. Robert is known for wearing his bike jerseys around the office and for speeding full-force ahead with anything technology-related, particularly when it’s about sun safety.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Tweeting Away at EPA

Last fall, I wrote about this blog’s Twitter account, @greenversations. Since then, several folks across EPA have been trying out Twitter, with varying approaches.  Today, I got this question from Randa Williams, a researcher at the University of Washington who’s looking into best practices for businesses on Twitter:

I wonder when you will start having conversations rather than just broadcasting on twitter…Lots of EPA broadcast channels on Twitter, exceptionally few conversations. I know, engagement is more work, wondering if you had thought about expanding into this area.

It was such a good question, I thought I’d respond publicly as well as emailing her.

Randa is right: the gold standard is conversing on Twitter and other social media sites, not just broadcasting. But she’s also right that it takes resources.  Not just someone’s time, but also having the right person, who’s plugged into what’s going on around EPA and who knows how to speak to the world on EPA’s behalf.

There are also different ways to use Twitter, and we’re experimenting with most of them.  For example, we’ve done a little live tweeting, with plans to do more.  There are also different approaches to who to follow, how frequently we can commit to posting, etc.

We do have a couple of good examples of interaction for content on a smaller scale than “all of EPA:”

While we figure out the gold standard (interaction), we’re doing what we can on what I call the tin standard (broadcasting). Given the number of followers, it seems a decent number of people appreciate even that.  Here are some of our other accounts:

  • @EPAgov – our main account.  Primarily our automated news release headlines and blog posts, plus a few web updates and manual tweets.  This account combines content that’s also split into individual accounts, and is also available on normal Web pages:
  • @EPAlive – we’re occasionally experimenting with using this for live tweeting
  • @EPAowow – Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds
  • @EPAairmarketsmarket-based regulatory programs to improve U.S. air quality
  • @EPAregion2 – regional office in New York
  • @EPAregion3 – regional office in Philadelphia

We’re also working up some conventions, like starting our account names with “usepa” and using the same seal as the avatar.

Not quite in the same category, some of us are also tweeting professionally. We’re not “representing” EPA per se, but we’re using it as a professional network and information source.  For example:

  • @levyj413 – this is my Twitter account, and I use it to discuss social media in government (especially EPA)
  • @suzack777 – this is Suzanne Ackerman on our web team.  Suzanne uses Twitter to research projects like blogger outreach, and uses Twitter to make contacts and discuss related issues.

So thanks, Randa, for reminding me that we need to communicate more about what we’re up to.  Stay tuned for updates about our other social media efforts, too (in the meantime, join us on Facebook!).

Jeffrey Levy is EPA’s Director of Web Communications.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Celebrate Earth Day 2009

About the author: Lisa Jackson is the EPA Administrator

image of Administrator Jackspon standing next to a child on a bikeToday, we’re celebrating the biggest Earth Day in history. One billion people – almost one in every six people on the planet – will stand up to show that protecting the Earth and those who live on it is our responsibility. How amazing is that?

This Earth Day, EPA is on the job, and working hard to protect human health and the environment. But we need your help.

Our web folks have updated our EPA page with a special Earth Day Pick 5 for the Environment Project. We provide 10 activities. You pick 5 and commit to doing them.

Once you get started on your Pick 5, you can share your stories in Facebook, photos on Flickr, and videos on YouTube. We’ll also have special blog posts here in Greenversations where you can talk about how you’re doing and help each other.

This is a defining moment. Some of the best opportunities we’ll ever have to make a change and save our planet are happening right now. The actions we take – or don’t take – are going to affect what happens today and for generations to come. That is our reality right now. But, there is plenty we can do.

We really can show that environmental protection and economic growth work hand in hand. We don’t have to choose between a strong economy and a clean environment, we just have to be smart enough to work for both. That will open the way to millions of green jobs in a low-carbon economy.

We really can lead the world in clean, homegrown energy sources, cutting emissions in the air, lowering energy costs for families, businesses and government, and ending, once and for all, our dependence on foreign oil. It’s a way to make the world not only cleaner but safer.

And we really can stop the rapid advance of climate change. We should be responsible enough to leave the world a better place for our children and grandchildren. But it takes a commitment from all of us.

Grow the economy. Strengthen our national security. Save our planet in the bargain. It sounds ambitious – because it is. But it’s a future that’s within our sights.  All we have to do is help each other to get there.

Okay I have to plug our project one more time. Visit http://www.epa.gov/pick5 to join our Pick 5 for the Environment Project and be part of the one billion people taking action this Earth Day.

We can do more to protect our communities and our planet than ever before. It’s up to you.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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@Wormlady is our 400th Twitter follower

About the author: Jeffrey Levy joined EPA in 1993 to help protect the ozone layer. He is now the National Web Content Manager.

Two weeks ago I wrote that we’d hit 300 people following us on Twitter. I invited them to mention us, to see whether our follower count would jump, and promised a follow-up.

Only one person did tweet us, as far as I could find on Twitter search. Thanks, wingy22!

Yet in the past two weeks, we’ve picked up another 100 followers. Six months from 0-300, two weeks from 300-400. Errr … 401 … 402 … umm … wait a sec … 403 … make that 408. Anyway, @wormlady was #400. I put her name in the title because that’s about all that actually shows up in Twitter’s 140-character posts, so I’m hoping she’ll notice her name the next time she logs in.

Anyway, the sudden jump amazes me. Was it as simple as noting we’re on Twitter in a post, as opposed to just having the link on the right?

Let’s try the same thing on Facebook and MySpace. We’re not doing much there yet, but we have big plans, and knowing there’s interest helps. If you want to know when we do get going, become our fan on Facebook and MySpace.

How to engage the most people isn’t an idle question. The first time, for example, that we take comments on a regulation via social media, we’ll want to get the biggest bang for the least effort (efficient use of your tax dollars, doncha know).

What do you suggest?

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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