Cutting edge: Raymond Spier

November 3, 2000

Ethics and the teaching of responsibility in research are under the microscope.

When trust goes out the window accountability comes in through the door - which means that researchers and their students must behave, and be seen to behave, in a responsible manner.

One way to achieve "good" behaviour is to inculcate ethics. US researchers in health and general science succumbed to this regime about ten years ago. Given the quantities of research money distributed in the US by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes for Health (approaching $25 billion (£17 billion) compared with the equivalent UK expenditure of about £1 billion), these organisations thought it necessary to placate a questioning congress by providing an education in research ethics to researchers working on their grants.

In February 1993, I attended a satellite session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's meeting in Boston that was devoted to the methods used for teaching research ethics to students. This activity had previously been buoyed by special NSF grants to academics to develop teaching material for such courses, much of which was made available on this occasion. The message that emerged from these deliberations was that there are different approaches to teaching ethics. These ranged from the standard lecture and seminar format to role-playing and case studies. Most engineering students want definitive answers to ethical issues. In arriving at this delineation of a particular "way ahead", it is necessary to resolve conflicts arising from the existence of different ethical systems and for the leader of the session to commit to his or her personal solution to the problem.

For both science and engineering, we can identify two areas where ethical issues emerge - the way in which the research is carried out and the ends towards which it is working. I refer to these as process or product areas. Issues that arise from doing science are the fabrication or falsification of results and plagiarism. In addition, issues such as conflicts of interest, deception and whistleblowing arise. In engineering, environmental effects, the assessment of risks and safety issues are concerns.

On the product side, science - in providing a reductionist explanation for the origins of the universe, life, humans and mental activities - creates ethical issues for those who hold that this approach to nature lacks essential components. Similarly, engineering, in the areas of biotechnology, the nuclear industry, waste-generating industry and changes to the environment, raises ethical issues that need to be examined.

The realisation that researchers in the UK need exposure to such ethical issues is growing. The Medical Research Council has issued several important publications detailing the ethical procedures that should be adopted in a variety of clinical and laboratory research situations.

Bioethics has become an important element in the education of doctors. In 1998, the University of Surrey created the first UK chair in science and engineering ethics. This led to my contributing an ethics component to various courses, as well as providing the biotechnology ethics section of a course necessary for the award of the European doctorate in biotechnology. As the number and power of the tools that are emerging from scientific and engineering activities increases, researchers responsible for progress in these areas will need to justify in ethical terms both how they work and the areas in which they work.

Raymond Spier is professor of science and engineering ethics at the University of Surrey, where he was formerly professor of microbiology. He co-edits Science and Engineering Ethics,

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments