Playing fair: U-M science students confront ethical dilemmas


ANN ARBOR, Mich.---Consider these ethical missteps: A microbiologist accidentally destroys samples of plague bacteria in his lab, but covers his blunder by reporting them missing, setting off a bioterrorism scare. Physicists at a national laboratory announce the discovery of two missing elements in the Periodic Table, but colleagues analyze the data and conclude the "discovery" is a sham.

Such extreme breaches of conduct are the exception, not the rule, in scientific circles. But researchers face sticky situations involving confidentiality, data ownership, conflicts of interest and other ethical issues daily. To prepare tomorrow's scientists for dealing with such dilemmas, the University of Michigan starts instilling research ethics early---at the undergraduate level.

Chemistry professor Brian Coppola will discuss the U-M approach at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Anaheim, Calif. on March 31.

Rather than dictating codes of conduct, Coppola and the junior- and senior-level student facilitators who work with him provide first-year chemistry students with "an armature of thinking weapons" for analyzing slippery situations. For example, the students learn to ask such questions as:

  • What are the possible courses of action for the various people involved in the situation?
  • What ethical issues does each option raise?
  • What principles can be used to decide which option is best?
  • Are there practical considerations that might make the most ethical course of action difficult to implement?
  • Who might provide good advice on what to do?

"We don't expect that this process will turn bad people into good people, but what it will do is sensitize people who might not otherwise be sensitized to the issues and give them a set of skills for acting more consciously," said Coppola, who recently received the Society for College Science Teachers/Kendall-Hunt Outstanding Undergraduate Science Teacher Award. The ethics instruction has at least as much impact on the upper-level facilitators as on the beginning students, Coppola said, and that's part of the plan.

"Both the literature and everyone's anecdotal experience suggest that the impact of instruction on behavior is most profound on the instructor," Coppola said. "If you have to stand up and be the moral authority, especially on a topic like this, it's bound to affect the way you deal with situations you face later."

An e-mail he received from one student instructor underscores the point. "She clearly was up late one night working on her senior thesis, and she clearly had reached a point where there was a missing piece of data, and she could have made the choice to fabricate it or gloss it over," Coppola recalled. "The e-mail she sent me at 2:30 in the morning was a single line: 'Damn you for making me think ethically!' And that was beautiful."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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