Archive for September, 2011

Most people agree on the necessity of teaching ethics to science students. However, there are many different opinions about  how to do it. One typical reasoning line goes as follows: “In our discipline we have a unique, separate set of issues”. The implication of this approach is that there is a need for a separate ethics course for each field of research (e.g., one for computing, one for biology, one for chemistry, and so on). One practical problem with this approach is that it goes against the current trend of streamlining courses and budgets. But, at a more fundamental level, is misguided. In fact, it is surprising how universal are the most important science ethics issues. Across fields of scientific research the majority of ethical problems involve issues of authorship and peer review, human and animal experiments, and conflict of interest.

Indeed, a biased review of a manuscript in Geology stems from the same human faults as a biased review of a manuscript in computing or any other field of research and alas, has the same devastating effects. One might take some exception to the contention that issues human and animal experiments affect all fields, since, at first glance it would appear that not all disciplines deal with them. But in this era of “big science,”  when we often find 100+ interdisciplinary teams working on a single problem, this is less and less true. For example, a mathematician, statistician, or computer scientist who supports a biomedical team in a major investigation, manipulates human or animal data and shares responsibilities with every other team member.Hence, we find major issues of science ethics that are fundamental to all fields.Commonality and economies of scale, as important as they are, are not the only reasons for building interdisciplinary science ethics courses.

A distinct difficulty with science ethics education is that, in addition to conveying knowledge, one has also to impart the “ethics message.” For example, in a typical science or engineering course, such as one dealing with heat transfer, one can generally rest assured that a good student who received an A grade will be able to design an adequate climate control system when called upon to do so. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case with science ethics. The former student (current professional) who  scored an A in the science ethics class may know very well what the right thing to do is and yet may choose to do the opposite because it is to her/his short-term interests to do so.  The standard of success in science ethics education is at a qualitatively different level, and, to our frustration, it is difficult to measure. One could liken it to preparing a traveler for a very difficult journey yet having no no means of communication to verify that s/he has safely reached the destination. For the moment,all we can do is prepare the student as best we can and hope for  success. This preparation needs to be innovative, systematic, and comprehensive. For this reason science ethics courses need to be designed and delivered by multidisciplinary teams that include both seasoned scientists and humanities scholars. They need to deliver an honest and insightful assessment of the current state of affairs, along with a historical perspective of how we reached our current status, and provide an appraisal of philosophical/psychological issues underlying ethical issues in contemporary society. The material needs to get” under the student’s skin” and leave an emotional imprint that is likely to work as an “orthotics reflex” when the time comes to make ethical decisions as a practicing scientist in one or even in ten years.

Science ethics education cannot be commoditized or shortchanged. It requires  talented, knowledgeable instructors, a great deal of work, and passion for the subject. Unavoidably, if done properly it is also expensive. However, the alternative to investing time  and resources in ethics education is unacceptable. Even if, at present, we are unable to meausre its outcome completely, the negative effects of failing to provide our scientists with a work ethics that is underpinned by a sense of ethics and morality is too frightening to contemplate.

Ioannis Pavlidis

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