Employing brain implants to create brain-machine interfaces; using gene editing technology to create “designer babies”; bioengineering super- or cyber-athletes—because we can, should we?
In this post, Dr. Debra Mathews of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics shares three models for addressing STEM ethics with the next generation, including prioritizing diversity and inclusion in ethics research. Enjoy!
Though science and engineering are not neutral, and necessarily employ normative assumptions and take moral stances at all stages, from the selection of research questions to the development and regulation of applications of that science, ethics education in STEM fields is usually ad hoc, minimal, or elective. Given the degree to which science and engineering shape the world we live in, everyone working in these fields should have the tools and skills to proactively recognize and engage the moral aspects of their work. With colleagues at Johns Hopkins and other institutions, we have worked to create ethics education programs to help train the next generation of STEM leaders. I describe three of these below.
In 2016, colleagues in the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering and I developed an undergraduate course to fill a gap in ethics education for future STEM leaders. Current ethics education requirements are disparate and minimal. Sometimes they are met by a few online modules, sometimes a lecture or two, often embedded within a science or engineering course. Our course requires students to participate in an active process to consider ethical issues, instead of just passively receiving information. We want to give students skills to identify, analyze and make thoughtful, defensible decisions about ethical problems, which they are sure to encounter in their future careers. This class raises students’ consciousness—so that they are able to identify the presence of an ethical problem in the first place. It also equips them with a practiced skill set that enables them to face these challenges in a reflective, rather than reflexive, way.
In the first part of the course, students learn the basics of ethics and learn about and practice with a number ethical decision-making frameworks, while also learning about the ways decision-making can be compromised, due to implicit bias, for example. About 75% of students also elect to take the second part of the course, which is a four-week deep dive into a real-world ethical issue in science or engineering. Students work in groups to research, deliberate, and come to a decision about the topic at hand. In our first year, for example, our 17 students made decisions about whether or not to release genetically modified mosquitoes to combat diseases such as the Zika virus. This year, about 100 students are taking up questions of privacy and big data.
Many fields of science have systemically excluded women and minorities. Even in fields where women have made inroads, they still tend to be predominantly white. This is a problem for many reasons, not least of which is that people tend to study the things that are most interesting to them personally, and if the life-experience of the field comes from only a narrow slice of the population, the questions that are asked are likely to be similarly narrow. In biomedicine and bioethics, this can exacerbate existing inequities. With funding from the NIH, I designed a research-focused mentorship program to build a regional pipeline to enhance diversity in Ethical, Legal, and Social Impacts (ELSI) research.
The Genomics and Society Mentorship Program was launched in the summer of 2019 to provide intensive training for 5-6 students per year in ELSI research. Faculty from the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics mentor trainees on bioethics, both broadly and in the context of a 10-week summer research project, which enables students to identify and analyze morally relevant issues in science, medicine, and public health. Students continue their connection to the Program throughout the academic year (for a total of 15 months), co-lead the planning of an activity related to their interests in Genomics and Society at their home institution, and return to Hopkins for one week the following summer for additional training, mentorship, and connection with the next cohort of trainees.
Bench scientists who do not work with human subjects generally have few opportunities to engage with ethics and governance issues related to their work. It is important for these researchers to not only be aware of the societal and policy implications of the downstream applications of their work, but also to understand the moral assumptions and decisions embedded in basic science itself.
Perhaps our widest-reaching ethics education effort is a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Coursera, Engineering Life: Synbio, Bioethics & Public Policy, which is geared towards basic (versus applied) scientists working in synthetic biology. Since its launch in 2017, over 2,500 people from around the world have enrolled in the course. The course covers a number of applications of and issues raised by synthetic biology—including dual-use research (research that can be used for good or evil), development of biofuels, applications in human health, and more—and the ethical and policy questions they raise.
The STEM fields, and the bioethics research imbedded in and responding to these fields, shape the technologies that become part of the fabric of our lives. The people who make up these fields determine the questions that are asked, how problems are approached, and what solutions are pursued. As current members of these fields, it is our responsibility—and in the best interests of us all—to ensure that the next generation is both more diverse than we are and prepared to see and grapple with the ethical issues that they will face. Above are just three models, at very different scales, for addressing this challenge, but I hope you’ll get in touch if you want to know more!
Debra Mathews, PhD, MA
Assistant Director for Science Programs
Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics
Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics
Johns Hopkins School of Medicine
Debra Mathews, PhD, MA, is a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, where she serves as the Assistant Director for Science Programs. She is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Dr. Mathews’s academic work focuses on ethics and policy issues raised by emerging biotechnologies, with particular focus on genetics, stem cell science, neuroscience and synthetic biology.