Science in a moral context
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.