When I was in undergrad, I was 6 credits short of getting a minor in philosophy. I was, at the time, already accepted into a graduate school program, and staying around for another year would have meant more tuition and student fees.
It was one of those things that I really wish I had the time to do.
I was particularly interested in ethics. For me, ethics is about interactions between people and the implications of their actions. While philosophy seemed to be far from the biochemistry that I majored in, in fact I would say that much of my skill in logical thinking and writing was developed in these philosophy courses (I wrote a lot of essays…).
So why am I bringing this up?
About a week ago I went to talks presented by graduate students on Ethics and Dissemination. It brought me back to the days when I wrote essays about a person’s actions and responsibilities to the society. A few situations were discussed after the presentations – What should you do if your research subjects live in developing countries and have pressing needs for water, food, and personal safety? Is it right that your research results are published in pay-walled research journals, out of reach for those who participated in the project, who will benefit from the results? Does how we scientists choose to express ourselves (speech genre, terminology, style) affect the understanding by our audience and stakeholders? Do scientists have a responsibility to the society, and how far does this responsibility go beyond our research? And these, are not hypothetical questions. The situations cannot be more real for these graduate students.
It was tremendous to see graduate students asking themselves these questions and getting involved in discussions. This makes me wonder, how many science students participate in discussions about the ethics in science? How do science students (or any students) develop their ethical views on tough issues in science – the ones mentioned above, but also issues like animal research, evidence-based policies, stem cell research, consent by research participants, etc? Is there sufficient training in ethics available to aspiring scientists?
While I won’t be able to go back to school and complete those 6 credits to get my minor *sigh*, there are now more chances to learn about ethics and critical ideas. Through the “magic” of MOOC – Massive Open Online Courses – you can now take the Justice ER22x course online, taught by Professor Michael J. Sandel of Harvard, for free through edX. The course won’t offer any answers to the questions we just asked, and it doesn’t really have a focus on science, but it should provide a good foundation for philosophical thinking. Unfortunately it’s already a few weeks into the course (I am hoping that they will offer it again soon), but all the lecture videos are available online through the Harvard edX YouTube channel. Here is the promo video for the course (bear in mind that it is a promo video…)
And below is a short video of Professor Sandel talking about ethics and biotechnology.
For a reading list on the ethics in science, Chemistry Professor Linda Sweeting from the Towson State University put together a list back in 1995. In 1999, she published an article titled Ethics in Science for Undergraduate Students (closed access, published by the Journal of Chemistry Education), in which she made a strong case for the need of teaching ethics to science undergraduate students. Professor Sweeting was a Canadian, who unfortunately passed away in 2003.
Another excellent read is the Role of Ethics in Science by Joel Barkan.
Scientists can face many situations in which they need to decide “what is the right thing to do here?” The role ethics plays in this decision making process is not only important for scientists, but also for non-scientists to understand. I would love to see more people, especially aspiring scientists, interested in the interface between science and ethics 😀
Postscript: The talk I went to was part of the UBC FIRE talk series. During the session, 4-5 graduate students prepare and present 5-minute talks, to be followed by a facilitated discussion. They just wrapped up the series for 2012/2013, but will be back in September for 2013/2014.
Sweeting L.M. (1999). Ethics in Science for Undergraduate Students, Journal of Chemical Education, 76 (3) 369. DOI: 10.1021/ed076p369