An Exercise in Whistle-Blowing: The Julia Coltrane Case: To Tell Or Not To Tell?

Julia Coltrane is a first-year graduate student who just began her graduate work in behavioral ecology at Wrenwood State, a major research university. She is interested in how experiential factors in young mammals can affect later mating behaviors and mating preferences. She is working in the laboratory of Dr. Adrianna Shepp, a researcher with a long history of publication and grant support for her work in the relationships between sexual selection and hormones in mammals.

Julia is given a small study to do for her first-year project that is part of the work Dr. Shepp is conducting with her senior graduate student, William Rollins. Rollins directs the day-to-day work on the project, as it is part of his Ph.D. dissertation. Dr. Shepp had offered Julia several different projects on which the lab was working; Julia was most interested in the work with Rollins, as it was closest to her research interests. Rollins will defend his dissertation next year, and already has four papers that have been accepted for publication in major journals. He is considered to be a rising star in the field by all in the department.

The work Julia will conduct involves housing young green-backed voles in groups of different densities and obtaining blood samples from the animals each week to determine concentrations of certain hormones. When the young voles reach sexual maturity, they are tested in a mate-choice apparatus to determine their mating preferences. The mating behaviors and preferences are video-recorded for later analyses.

The housing and testing facilities for the voles are in a small lab building off campus. The vole project is the only study taking place currently at this lab building. Rollins is the one who has been maintaining and testing the animals up to this point, and is happy to get some assistance with data collection and animal care.

When Rollins brings Julia to the lab building to show her the voles and the testing facility, she is shocked. The cages are filthy and look like they have not been cleaned in several weeks. The animals are housed in much higher densities than she had read in the research protocol Dr. Shepp had given her. When Rollins is off checking some video tapes, she looks closely into several of the cages. In some of them she notices dead voles, and in all of them she sees voles that are injured with bite marks.

When Rollins returns, Julia asks him what he does with the voles that die or that are injured in the cages prior to testing. “Usually I just let the others finish them off – it’s what they do in the wild, and it’s a good extra source of protein for them,” he tells her. “I know the cages look pretty dirty right now, but the inspection isn’t for another month, so I’ll clean them all in a few weeks – we’ll have our testing done by then anyway,” Rollins says. Just before leaving the lab building, Julia is stunned to find a dead vole in the mate-choice testing cage. “I must have forgotten that one during last week’s test,” Rollins explains.

When Rollins and Julia return to the university, she does not feel at ease. She tells Dr. Shepp her concerns about the state of the animals in the off-campus lab building. Dr. Shepp tells her, “Look, Rollins is a solid researcher, and the animals are doing alright in the study. He gets great data, so don’t worry about it. Just do what you are supposed to do on this project, and once it’s finished, we can start thinking about your dissertation project. I just got the news that it will be funded, so you have support for three years without having to be a teaching assistant!”

Julia is torn after her discussion with Dr. Shepp, and wonders whether she should contact the head of the Wrenwood State Animal Care and Use Committee. She does not want to get Rollins or Dr. Shepp in trouble, but is disturbed about the housing conditions of the voles.

 Should Julia tell the head of the Animal Care and Use Committee about Rollins’s project?

Why or why not?













Conceptualization Steps for a Reasoned Judgment

Relevant Facts Moral Agents Power Relationships Between Agents Harms that Might Come

Basic Assumption:  One should do one's job as well as possible without causing unjustified harms.

Reinhold Schlieper
June 3, 2003