As I noted a few months ago, I co-taught this past term a graduate workshop on scientific ethics. It was an experiment — this is the first time we’ve offered a course like this in Physics at Oregon — and overall I think it was fairly successful. We had a series of lively discussions, consistent attendence by over twenty graduate students, and some good verbal and written feedback on the course being interesting and perhaps even useful. (No one seems to have hated it, though perhaps they just kept quiet…) Rather than describing it in detail, I’ll just write about a few notable points. Despite the experiment going pretty well, I’m still unsure what the future of this workshop will be, or should be.
A Two-Slit Experiment in Ethics
Our workshop had two aims that were somewhat at odds: exploring the ethical role of scientists in society, and exploring the practical ethical issues involved in conducting scientific research. Both are important. The former was pushed by my colleague, Greg Bothun; I was more keen on the latter. And so we took a zigzagging path through topics, covering such things as communication with the public on issues like climate change, and challenges related to data management. This went better than I expected, and at least some students felt strongly that this combination of aims was a good one. It did mean, however, we covered each less thoroughly than we’d like.
Scientific Publishing, and Scientific Customs
The most “successful” session of the workshop, in my opinion, was on scientific publishing. This is a fascinating subject — it’s complicated, important, contentious, and it’s the subject of a lot of contemporary discussion on ways to reform or even totally revamp it. We discussed aspects of all of this, building on readings we assigned ahead of time, starting with a walk through how the “usual” process of peer review and publication works. Doing this highlighted an unexpected feature of the course: that it informs students about the scientific community’s customs and procedures. I was surprised that there were graduate students, in their third year and higher, who seemed largely unaware of how publishing works. (Not a majority of students, but certainly not zero.) There’s a lot that students need to absorb about the practice of science. In my and many other groups things like choosing journals, author roles, etc., are discussed a lot, but, remarkably, this isn’t universally the case. A workshop like this can help students gain these insights.
Not surprisingly, our discussion of publishing touched on the subject of peer review:
- what reviewers’ roles are, and why reviewers bother to review papers. (I ask myself this question a lot, since it takes me many hours to write a review!)
- what journals’ roles and responsibilities are
- what authors’ responsibilities are
- where the responsibility lies for ensuring the validity of published research
Ethical issues arise at each stage in the publication process.
We also discussed alternatives to the present journal-based system, such as pre-print servers that are already the “only” relevant publication site for several areas of physics and other fields, commenting on advantages and disadvantages of this approach. This ties into a broader discussion of what we, as scientists, want from the scientific literature, and what the funders of science want from the scientific literature, which meshes well with a discussion of …
… Science funding. Again, we had a very good discussion of the process (funding agencies, grant review, historical funding levels, etc.) But we began with the broader question of “Why publicly fund science?” Students proposed three broad reasons:
- that it provides practical benefits to the public (i.e. applications)
- that it provides insight into how nature works (i.e. pure knowledge)
- that it allows public oversight of scientific inquiry
We voted on which reason we thought was most important, and what reason a hyopthetical congressperson would think is most important. Not surprisingly, the two votes were very dissimilar in outcomes, with “our” vote being 60/40/0 % for reasons 1/2/3 being most important, and “the congressperson’s” vote being 100/0/0 %. (I’m a great fan of reason #2.) The distinction is an important one, and one that I feel is often missing from debates about “proper” levels of science funding, funding of high- vs. low-risk projects, unanticipated benefits of funding science, and more. I’m routinely disappointed by essays from professional societies (including the American Physical Society) that advocate for increased science funding with only the shallowest justifications, which I doubt are very convincing to the powers-that-be.
We also touched on the related question of “Why publicly fund science at universities,” which is a precursor to contentious contemporary questions about over-supply of graduate students and postdocs, among other things.
I think overall we succeeded in increasing students’ awareness of issues related to scientific ethics, conveying useful guidance on practical aspects of responsibly conducting research, and getting students to think about broader issues of science and society — though less thoroughly and less smoothly than I’d like. Many topics came up that got short shrift. For example: what responsibility to act, if any, do we have if we find that a published paper, not our own, is wrong or deeply flawed. (For a recent example, see this discussion from Andrew Gelman.) I admit that I have no good answer to this question.
One student at the end, with others agreeing, pointed out that there should be some space in graduate school for structured discussion of science and society, and aside from this workshop, there isn’t. (I don’t really agree with the statement that such a space is necessary, since students can self-organize to explore this, but I agree that it’s helpful.)
Though it went well, I’m not sure how we’ll go about integrating this workshop into our “usual” schedule of course offerings. Both Greg and I taught this in addition to our usual teaching assignments. (I’ve done this for various other little courses as well; Greg has done this a lot.) The workshop wasn’t much work, but everything adds up, packing the days with far more tasks than I can actually get done. I bring this up not to complain, but to point out that more generally, the question often arises of how to teach students various skills that don’t fit conveniently into the framework of regular, “full-size” classes, and we have yet to come up with a good answer to it.
…is a seashell I painted a few days ago, based on a photo in Shells: Jewels from the Sea by M. G. Harasewych.