Ethical Leadership in STEM: Towards a Wise Future

Two former Clare Boothe Luce Professors at St. John’s University discuss their school’s “ethics-first” culture, the faith-based mission in which this practice is based, and their efforts to strengthen this commitment to ethics. We began with a post from Professor Gina M. Florio, who discussed the basis of “ethics-first” culture in Catholic intellectual tradition and explored what it looks like to put ethics and responsibility at the forefront of academic learning.

In this piece, Professor Laura Schramm shares her personal journey developing ethics-based programs, which is rooted in a lifelong interest in ethical behavior. She touches on the topic of the scientific research results other scientists have been unable to reproduce. Read more about scientific reproducibility in research in Nature.

In 2016, Monya Baker exposed concerns about the reproducibility of some scientific research when her team surveyed 1,500 top notch scientists and published the results in Nature. The majority of scientists she surveyed indicated that some sort of reproducibility "crisis" exists. Research ethics may be a contributing factor, and we must assess our current STEM ethics training methods for the next generation of scientists.

It is on all of us in higher education to address the “ethics issue in STEM” by not only creating and enhancing a STEM ethics culture on every campus but by developing ethics training opportunities for STEM leaders on every campus. We spend a great deal of time training our students to do experiments and interpret results. Shouldn’t ethics receive the same attention?

I have always been interested in STEM ethics. I came of age in science with the transition of 35mm slides to Power Point and the adoption of Adobe® Photoshop®. I watched in horror as scientists were accused of manipulating images and data in research papers. Some cases received national attention, and researchers were sentenced to jail time.

In 2003, I taught and mentored undergraduate and graduate students in research as a brand new Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Biology at St. John’s University, and I recognized that we needed to dedicate the same diligence that we applied to training students in experimental protocols to educating them in research ethics.

In 2005, I went to Jeffrey W. Fagen, Dean of St. John’s College of Arts & Sciences, who readily supported this initiative and sent me to a Research Ethics Workshop led by Kenneth D. Pimple, Ph.D., Director of Teaching Research Ethics Programs at the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions. The workshop gave me the tools to develop both undergraduate and graduate courses focused on scientific literacy and integrity. I was pleased as punch when, while seeking certification from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) for our bachelor’s degree in Biology, the external reviewers called out our Scientific Literacy & Integrity course and training to be a unique strength of our curriculum.

St. John’s University is committed to nurturing an “ethics-first” culture in STEM. Our mission statement sums up our commitment quite eloquently: we strive to demonstrate “behavior faithful to ethical standards; St. John’s affirms the threefold mission of a university to seek truth through research, to disseminate it through teaching and to act on it.” Our conviction as a university community to “ethics-first” is described in even more detail in “Developing an Ethics-First Culture in STEM Higher Education,” a piece by my colleague and fellow Clare Boothe Luce Professor, Dr. Gina Florio.

As the Associate Dean of St. John’s College of Arts & Sciences Graduate Division and as the instructor of record for our Scientific Literacy & Integrity courses in St. John’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, I have had the opportunity to work with faculty across disciplines and colleges to develop a new master’s program in Scientific Literacy & Integrity. This multidisciplinary graduate program curriculum includes faculty expertise from philosophy, theology, humanities, social sciences, and the natural sciences. We the faculty, across St. John’s University, agreed on the urgent need for this program to develop future leaders in STEM ethics. I am proud to report that the program has been approved by the New York State Education department. Stay tuned for a launch date!

Author Bio

Laura Schramm

Laura Schramm, Ph.D.
Director of Environmental Studies
Professor of Biological Sciences
Former Clare Boothe Luce Professor
St. John's University

Dr. Schramm is a Professor of Biological Sciences and currently serves as the Director of Environmental Studies for both undergraduate and graduate studies. Previously, she served as Associate Dean for both the Undergraduate and Graduate Divisions in St. John’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences (2011-2019). Support from the Clare Boothe Luce Professorship allowed Dr. Schramm to secure funding from the National Institute of Health, publish in peer reviewed journals with her research cited over 1400 times, mentor doctoral, master’s, and undergraduate students while earning tenure and being promoted to full professor. 

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