Sunday, November 20, 2011

Educating Scientists and Engineers About Social and Ethical Implications of their Research

The Congress on Teaching the Social and Ethical Implications of Research was held in Tempe, AZ on November 10-11, 2011. Approximately 120 educators from universities and science museums met on the campus of Arizona State University to share innovative ideas for educating scientists and engineers to think critically about the social impacts of their research. About half the group were involved in nanoscience education, as the conference was scheduled immediately following the annual meeting of S.Net: the Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies.

Presenters discussed the benefits and challenges of various approaches to science ethics training, in formats such as traditional classrooms, online training programs, virtual worlds, service projects in developing countries, and international engineering contests.

Several young scientists also discussed student-led efforts to promote ethics training and action through organizations such as Student Pugwash and the Graduation Pledge Alliance. Museum-based informal science educators from the NISE Network (Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network) were on hand to discuss Nano Days and showed several videos and hands-on exercises used to engage the public in

What became clear from the two days of discussions was the difficulty of integrating ethics education modules into highly structured science and engineering programs, particularly at the graduate level. In an environment where productivity is measured by number of publications and patents, having students take time away from their lab work to think about the societal impacts of their work can be seen as something that is at best a nuisance, at worst an impediment to achieving their own and their lab's goals. Even those faculty and students who are enthusiastic about participating in societal impacts education programs can face difficulties justifying their participation to peers and superiors in the University. So one takeaway from the conference is that if universities care about producing ethically responsible nanocience graduates, they need to restructure their incentive systems to recognize and encourage the importance of this training.

Another takeaway from the meeting was the point made by several speakers that language counts. Talking about "ethics" or "ELSI"(ethical, legal, and social implications) education sounds abstract to science students and their faculty mentors, and can be a turnoff. Some conference participants noted that framing these issues as being "policy"-related was a more effective way of getting attention. As much university-based research is government-funded, scientists and engineers are attuned to the importance of understanding the policy process and are willing to learn more about it.

Overall, the Congress was a stimulating two days spent in the company of people who care passionately about the roles played by science and technology in bettering social relations and the quality of life. Their dedication to helping the next generation of researchers use their knowledge and skills to advance the societal welfare was inspiring.

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