Last summer, 39 undergraduates and their faculty mentors at Santa Clara University watched a videotape of these fictitious scientists' dilemma, then debated what Jim should do. Just say no? That might jeopardize a valued colleague's research, as well as their relationship. Should he leave Peggy alone with the mice, giving her a chance to "borrow" them? That might not be ethical, or even legal.
The discussion was part of the university's Ethics in Science program. Supported by an HHMI grant, it reflects a nationwide trend to incorporate such issues into curricula. At Santa Clara, a Jesuit school in Silicon Valley, all undergraduates are required to take an ethics course. Thus, students receive more than just hard-core training in their fields; they learn some of the rules of professional conduct and start developing the ability to make ethical decisions.
The summer ethics class encourages studentsand facultyto think beyond public controversies such as stem cell research and consider the day-to-day dilemmas that scientists face. "Ethics isn't always those big-headline issues," says Margaret R. McLean, director of biotechnology and healthcare ethics at the university's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. "Most of the time, it's the little decisions we make every day."
One afternoon a week, the undergraduates gather with their mentors to role-play and debate ethical choices that range from the profound to the mundane. For example, Should I sign a restrictive agreement, as Jim did? What should I do if I discover that a colleague fudged data? If I overslept Saturday morning and didn't feed the rats until noon, must I record the delay? Why bother, if it won't affect my data? (Then again, maybe it will.)
Making ethical decisions requires sensitivity, judgment and the ability to identify the stakeholders as well as the benefits, costs and consequences of any action. Moral imagination helps, as does compassion.
Perhaps compassion cannot be taught, but bioethicists believe that judgment can. Besides, learning to recognize and think about ethical questions may be as important as coming to consensus on answers. Leading scientific organizations, such as the National Institutes of Health, have recommended broad instruction in proper research conduct.
Traditionally, formal education about the ethics of science did not begin until graduate schoolif then. A growing number of educators, however, believe it needs to start earlier, before students develop deep-rooted research styles and standards. "College is where many young people abandon earlier habits, ways of thinking and aspirations, and acquire new ones. So it is an especially fertile environment for teaching ethics," says Elizabeth Kiss, director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. As part of the liberal arts curriculum, Duke requires every undergraduate to complete two courses in ethical inquiry.
This can be a real challenge, teachers report. Studentsespecially science majorsoften feel uncomfortable discussing deeply felt values and analyzing motivations and consequences. "We're not talking about memorizing a chemical cascade," Santa Clara's McLean observes, "we're talking about the kind of person you are."
Another barrier is that undergraduates often assume science is a morally neutral endeavor, says Jeremy Sugarman, a professor of medicine and philosophy at Duke. "They need to see that science is not value-free. There are norms and standards that need to be learned."
In Sugarman's course on ethics in the process and application of science, students are paired with mentors from the medical center's Institutional Review Board. Each pair reviews protocols actually under consideration by the board and attends a board meeting together. Then students write papers about what it is like to judge another scientist's protocol and how the board's deliberations compare with the ideal standards and procedures discussed in class.
The students also examine real cases with chairs of the Committee on Institutional Animal Care and Use and the group that investigates allegations of research misconduct. They also spend time in labs, teasing out some of the ethical questions that arise in the course of doing research. Visiting the lab of an Alzheimer's disease researcher, for example, they discovered how deeply the work was influenced by considerations of informed consent. "It's one thing to read a textbook that spells out the ethical issues," Sugarman says. "It's much harder to recognize those questions when they come up as science is actually happening."
Arizona State University and the University of Arizona cohost an annual three-day retreat for science majors, supported by HHMI. The theme is loftywhat makes science ethical?but the discussions are down-to-earth. In a session on medical ethics, for instance, the students consider the inequitable distribution of organs and end-of-life care. In a genetics workshop, they talk about "designer children."
The closer a problem comes to their own lives, the more excited and engaged the students become, says James Collins, chairman of biology at Arizona State and co-organizer of the retreat. One of the most popular workshops explores questions of laboratory ethics: Who owns the lab notebook? What constitutes plagiarism? What's the relationship between the lab head and postdocs, between postdocs and graduate students, between all of them and undergraduates? "Those questions are real to students," Collins says. "That's when we really begin to see light bulbs go on."
Students respond well to playing the role of ethical decision maker by applying what they've learned in their ethics courses. At the start of Santa Clara's Ethics in Science seminar, Amy Shachter, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, conducts an ethics "inventory" in which students write a short response to several scenarios. For example, "You are a journal editor who learns that a reviewer is disregarding confidentiality guidelines. What do you do?" Shachter scores the essays on sensitivity (how well the student goes beyond facts to express values and weigh benefits and costs to others), judgment (whether the student expresses moral principles and reasoned justifications beyond mere opinion) and commitment (the student's willingness to take action after determining the possible consequences).
At summer's end, Shachter repeats the test. In 1999the most recent year for which data were analyzedsensitivity scores started high and remained fairly constant: 75 percent in June, 78 percent in August. Judgment improved dramatically, howeverfrom 44 percent to 78 percentand commitment also increased measurably, from 67 percent to 78 percent.
"Students and even faculty grow in their ability to say, 'This is wrong and ought not to be done,' " says McLean. This growth is not linear, however, for there is a paradox in ethics education: The more one learns about the relationships among the players, the range of possible actions and the far-reaching consequences, the more difficult it becomes to make a decision. "Many ethical issues appear at first to be black and white," Shachter says, "but when you understand more, everything turns out to be gray."
To guide students through this murkiness, Shachter uses a simplified version of the Ethical Decision-Making Framework, a step-by-step approach to analyzing ethical problems that was designed by the university's Markkula Ethics Center. The tool first helps the user to define the ethical issue at hand; then to identify stakeholders, describe relationships, list possible actions and predict consequences; and, finally, to find ways to resolve problems resulting from the user's chosen action.
At first, the students and their faculty mentors rely heavily on the framework to analyze ethical issues and come up with solutions. But by summer's end, they do it without the framework, which vanishes like a map discarded once the journey becomes familiar.
Ethics in Science began in 1996 with chemistry faculty and students. Last year, Shachter and McLean added HHMI-supported biology students and their mentors, which produced a few surprises.
Chemists and biologists look at issues very differently, McLean discovered. Remember the conflict between Jim and Peggy over the genetically engineered mice? In past summers, the chemists agonized over finding a satisfactory solution: Giving her the mice seemed wrong, but refusing didn't seem right either. The biologists, however, came up with an answer immediately.
"The biologists said, 'All he has to do is sacrifice the mouse and give her the organs. That's all she really needed in this case,' " McLean recalls. This solution, of course, raised other ethical questions for the class to ponder.
this story in Acrobat PDF format.
Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
March 2002, pages 30-33.
©2002 Howard Hughes Medical Institute