Science in a moral context

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

MANY undergraduates at the California Institute of Technology spent the summer SURFing. Not shooting the tube at Malibu, mind you, but examining urban traffic problems or studying superconductivity on Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships. For those who spend four years here in one of the nation's most rigorous programs of scientific study, summer research is as natural as ``hanging ten'' on a good wave. The surprising thing isn't what they are studying, it's what they are not studying.

What's missing among the course work and computers, some members of the scientific community say, is a bit of the social sciences. Ethics, to be exact. And this missing ingredient in the academic chemistry of the nation's future scientific leadership could represent a serious oversight in their training.

The problem, they say, is insularity. And it certainly isn't unique to Caltech. Undergraduate science students often work through four years of demanding course requirements without looking up - without getting a perspective on science and technology and being shown how to put their work into a greater social context.

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In a world in which scientific research has a growing impact on society and the planet, more professors are emphasizing the need for a discussion of ethics within the science curriculum.

``It's not that there has been a deficiency [of ethics] in scientists and engineers,'' says Margaret MacVicar, dean for undergraduate education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). ``It's more of a growing recognition that the participation of scientists and technically trained people in positions of leadership is itself growing.''

She refers to a ``dramatic awakening'' in the scientific community in World War II, when scientists were enlisted to develop the atomic bomb but found they had no input in decisions about its use. Scientists learned ``not to be so trusting of those in leadership positions'' and felt ``an emerging consciousness that they should be players.''

But to do that, Dean MacVicar says, scientists need a better understanding of the workings of society and its leadership. And such an understanding can only come by learning to consider the human context in which scientific pursuits are carried out.

Professors at both MIT and Stanford University are working on ways to teach that understanding to students.

MIT is developing an ethics program that encourages what Ms. MacVicar calls ``infusion throughout four years, not compartmentalization into one course.'' While MIT professors are experimenting with formal classes on ethics (four will be offered this fall), they also hope to weave the subject into students' studies through required reading for freshman orientation, summer mini-courses for faculty to encourage value-oriented discussion, and a student-run colloquium in October entitled ``How to be Good.''

Stanford is tackling the ethics question by requiring every student of engineering to take at least one course in the school's Department of Technology, Values, Science, and Society. Only two of the department's 12 courses are strictly ``ethics'' courses, but all are geared to putting science into a greater social perspective.

``The idea is to make it a part of their wiring,'' says the department's associate chairman, Robert McGinn - ``to have them think about the ethical aspects of their actions as a matter of course.''

Stanford and MIT's approach is the minority view on ethics, though. Most schools rely on optional extracurricular lectures to get students thinking about ethical questions or hope that a humanities requirement will cover such issues.

``We're about as good as anyone on the subject - at least of the places I've been,'' says Caltech president Thomas E. Everhart, whose background includes teaching and administrative positions at the University of Illinois, Cornell University, and the University of California, Berkeley. ``Maybe all of higher education needs to address it.''

But it's especially difficult to teach ethics to science students, professors say, because there is so little time. Most science majors' four-year schedules are laid out for them in their first week, with little time between physics lectures and chemistry labs for electives or ethics.

``It's ambitious of us to try to teach engineers to do engineering in four years - and probably a little naive,'' says Paul Torgerson, engineering dean at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. ``There are a lot of things it would be nice to weave into the curriculum, but then it very quickly becomes a five-year program.''

The University of Delaware's Norman Bowie says it is ``politically impossible'' to make such a course required. ``Then,'' Professor Bowie says, ``everyone else wants his course to be required, too.''

But most professors agree that the current casual approach most schools take to ethics can be ineffective.

Extracurricular lectures may abound and draw responsive audiences, ``but it's probably the same group of students [attending] again and again,'' says Peter Capofreddi, who will begin his final year of electrical engineering at Caltech next month.

While many schools require their science students to take a certain number of humanities courses, there is no assurance that the requirement will be met through issue-oriented classes like philosophy or political science rather than music, art history, or languages.

``It's true we mostly don't think about ethics,'' says Paul Lee, another Caltech senior.

A growing number of professors are beginning to incorporate ethical issues into their science courses - although ``it's on a very ad hoc, and sometimes unpredictable, basis right now,'' according to John Truxal, of the Department of Technology and Society at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

``Engineering faculty tend to be very conservative and slow to move,'' Professor Truxal says. ``So there may be recognition but not much movement.''

``We're cognizant of the fact that teaching ethics is necessary,'' says Mr. Torgerson. ``We're just trying to get 10 pounds into a 5-pound bag and it doesn't all fit.''

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