Nicholas Goldberg: Can scientists moonlight as activists — or does that violate an important ethical code?
In 2004, I was studying for my masters in biology, taking part in a summer workshop at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. I joined the medical school’s Graduate Student Affairs Committee, where I was tasked with monitoring the committee’s activities. Each committee meeting included the chance for committee members to speak. One of the people I met as a member of this committee was Nicholas Goldberg. We had a brief conversation about the work he’s doing in environmental health — what he describes as “public health activism,” “environmental stewardship,” and “environmental rights,” all in the name of making the world a better place.
But what I found interesting about him, and what I’m still trying to understand, was how he could make the seemingly mundane into a “public health activism” activity — and then turn around within weeks and months after making these activities a part of his life, to start moonlighting as an environmental activist. His work on ecological restoration was the perfect example. The next month, we attended a conference at the prestigious Kennedy School for the Environment, where Nicholas was to give a talk that was co-sponsored by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM). The first question from the audience was who he was.
“I am the doctor who is also the environmental activist,” he answered. He talked about taking the Hippocratic oath, about how doctors, as being human, are bound to obey the law. “But I will not take the oath so I can pretend to be a doctor and then act in ways that are contrary to the law.” But I didn’t hear why he chose to violate the oath and then go on to make a career as an environmental activist. I had no idea.
But Goldberg’s interest in taking on this kind of dual role seems to be part of a larger project to do exactly what he says he rejects — taking up some of the “social justice” aspects of his profession and turning them into activist