What’s ethics got to do with science

10 Apr
2013 April 2 Featured Image

The course material and essays for my 4th year philosophy course

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:


7 Responses to “What’s ethics got to do with science”

  1. W. A. Fulkerson April 10, 2013 at 9:48 am #

    Interesting topic. I agree that scientists (like everyone else) should be mindful of the consequences of their work and that they should behave ethically, but when you say that they should be trained in ethics (I agree) I wonder how that would look practically. Isn’t the training going to be dependent on the views of the instructor?

    • Terrific T April 10, 2013 at 10:09 am #

      I find that the philosophy courses I took presented ideas and arguments that I was not familiar with, and helped me develop my own view about what is right and wrong. For example, I got to read about the logic of those for and against stem cell research. It was eye-opening in many cases, and it prevented me from getting stuck in my own echo chamber (keep hearing the same opinions/ideas over and over again).

      So while the instructor’s view might affect the course itself, the value really is in making sure that I get my own ideas straight. A good instructor, in my opinion, will look at the logic behind the arguments, instead of his or her own opinions of the matter. Now whether or not all instructors are good instructors is hard to say…

      • W. A. Fulkerson April 10, 2013 at 10:23 am #

        Fair enough. Emphasizing critical thinking and weighing the alternatives would certainly be helpful. Great post

        • Terrific T April 10, 2013 at 10:26 am #

          Thanks – I am glad that you enjoy the post!

  2. Artem Kaznatcheev April 13, 2013 at 11:27 am #

    Scientists (especially the physical sciences) need more training in philosophy in general. Way too often, do I see physicists present naive philosophical arguments that have been well studied since the 1700s as if they are discovering something new. However, philosophy is hard to to teach to the hard sciences. A lot of the students are used to science creating new questions and solving old ones, philosophy can be very disappointing as it argues in circles around the same questions for thousands of years. Much of philosophical tradition and practice is also incompatible with science, the focus on individual authors as opposed to theories developed by many different researchers and independent of them is very foreign to scientists. From my experience, this tradition of focusing on the ideas of individuals is particularly common in ethics.

    There needs to be a clear distinction between practical and philosophical ethics. As far as I understand, life sciences researchers (and even engineers) take practical ethics courses. These courses are largely there to inform them of the laws and cultural norms, and provide the basic tools needed to function in fields that have hurdles like ‘ethics committees’. This practical approach is invaluable, but has nothing to do with how ethics would be discussed in a philosophy course.

    Finally, it is always easy to say “we should be taught more of this” but a student only has so much time in a day and days in their studies. What will you eliminate to make space for philosophy courses?

    • Terrific T April 13, 2013 at 12:10 pm #

      I think what you stated, that philosophical tradition and practice being incompatible with science, is exactly why I would encourage scientists to take up readings of philosophy either formally or informally. Science should not exist in vacuum – and many issues cannot be dealt with based ONLY on scientific reasoning; it is useful to take ourselves out of the scientific realm and experience other ideas and reasonings. This, I think, is critical for us to understand when we try to convey science to those without scientific background.

      It is not necessarily true that most life sciences researchers take practical ethics courses – and by courses I mean one that requires reading, processing information, exchange of ideas with your peers, etc. The “ethics board” requirement you mentioned is typically a 3 hour online text/instruction with a quiz at the end. This is far from what I would consider a “minimum” for anyone (not to mention the complete lack of philosophical ethics).

      I understand the limitation of time. With that being said, I don’t think it is not doable – I took many philosophy courses without sacrificing time for my biochemistry honours program. Some of my classmates took electives that were easy marks (so could have taken a philosophy course). Even not as a stand-alone course, teachers and professors can incorporate readings – even if just 1 article, like the Role of Ethics in Science mentioned in my post – into science courses to make discussion of ethics as part of the program. There are, as I mentioned in the article, also other ways to get exposure outside of formal training. So I don’t think it is a matter of “not having enough time” – but a matter of how important we think it is to make it happen.

    • Terrific T April 21, 2013 at 1:50 am #

      Update: I recently came across this (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v495/n7442/full/495449a.html, subscription required) which supports my point in the comment about the lack of proper training in ethics for scientists in life sciences. I Googled the NIH policy and found its website with additional resources: http://grants.nih.gov/training/responsibleconduct.htm.

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