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Thursday, 19 July, 2001, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK
Should schools be teaching science ethics?

Children are leaving school ill-equipped to deal with the moral questions thrown up by controversial advances in science such as human embryo cloning and the genetic modification of foods, a report says.

The research charity the Wellcome Trust uncovered widespread fears that pupils were forming opinions that were not based on scientific fact.

Its report says science teaching tends to duck the ethical problems and calls for curriculum reform and better training for teachers.

The research charity suggests that science-related issues should be dealt with by both science and humanities staff.

Should science ethics be taught in the classroom? Or should science lessons be totally "value free"?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

Who defines what is and isn't ethical? Ethical issues should only be taken seriously if there is a practical reason for them i.e. the dangers of human cloning. Ethical issues related to religion should be totally ignored as these are based on unproven beliefs.
Michael Pala, UK

It seems fair to try and equip them with the means to deal with complex ethical issues

Matthew, Switzerland
The consideration of the implications of science has now become unavoidable. Every pupil will have to deal with an increasingly scientific society as adults. In this case it seems fair to try and equip them with the means to deal with complex ethical issues. As a teacher I feel that this is something that is best left to post 16 education. Ethics has become an intrinsic part of science so why not science education as well?
Matthew, Switzerland

It would seem that the teachers are again being asked to do something that should be the parents' responsibility. A child is only in school for 6 hours a day - what about the rest of their lives outside? Parents are unable or unwilling to provide a moral upbringing, or attempt to explore ethical issues are as much at fault as the society which allows them to deny responsibility for their children's actions and beliefs.
Howard, UK

It seems to me that science education has much to gain from discussion about the ethical issues thrown up by some areas of science such as animal research, GM foods and cloning. School science is often taught as a "value free" collection of facts to be learned by rote. The humanities are so much more attractive with their "value laden" discussions and debates.

As a science communicator, I think debates on science issues should be grounded in fact, and that science teachers should have access to the relevant facts. Perhaps they also need help on how to facilitate debate that, although factually based, is by nature concerned with simple ethical and philosophical principles. I do not believe, like some other contributors, that such debate in schools is, or should be, about telling pupils what to think. It is all about getting pupils to think for themselves.
Barbara Davies, UK

Of course ethics should be taught in science class. Young people ought to know that just because we can do something, it doesn't necessarily mean that we should. It makes me think of my son's Taekwondo instructor, who always advises his pupils to turn and run away as their first line of defence - just because his pupil's know how to deck a guy with one swift kick, doesn't mean that they should.
Jacqui Miller, Canada

I done my GCSEs recently now when I was at school we were always weeks behind schedule with what we had currently particularly in our science lessons, teaching ethics within a science lesson or as an extra curricula subject is unfeasible, there just isn't enough time or resources.
Des, UK

It is difficult to see how children can be taught science ethics, when our society no longer has any moral standards to use as a benchmark. Unfortunately, this is now an "anything goes" society in which it is left to the individual to develop their own credo. So whose ethical values do we teach to our children - yours or mine?
Paul H, Gloucester, England

Ethical issues and allowing children to determine what their own thoughts on morality are, based upon facts and alternative opinions, is part of their development process. If they learn both the facts and opinions in school, they then (when they leave) have the basics to form their own individual opinions which is inevitable no matter how much or what you "drill" into them. Morality isn't just what you learnt in school but your whole social and economic background. However I do believe that science ethics will help children to form moral opinions of their own that are based on an overall view or insight of a subject.
Gema, Espaņa

I have just left university with a degree in molecular and cell biology. During the degree programme I spent a lot of time learning about all of these techniques, the basis behind them and so forth. However we were never taught the ethics of the subject. We never looked at whether stem cell research or genetic manipulation was ethical. It was left very much up to us to form opinions on the ethics. However schools skirt these issues in science, biology is far more anatomy based with limited amounts of genetics. Therefore people leave school and don't know or know very little about the gene world and therefore it is seen as a terrifying frontier of unknowns.
R Mackenzie, Scotland

We have children leaving school who can barely read or write, and many who have so little understanding of other cultures that they hate their neighbours because of their colour or religion. In these circumstances the ability to debate the morality of genetic modification seems somewhat irrelevant to basic education.

Anyway moral issues are an issue for the individual. If each pupil is taught the basics of research and debate, they will be equipped to form sound opinions without further assistance.
K Sadler, UK

Allowing pupils to explore the issues surrounding science is crucial. Science Year is about preparing young people for a future that is exciting, challenging and increasingly scientific and only by looking at all the facts, including moral and ethical issues will we fully be able to achieve these goals.
Professor Nigel Paine, UK

Teaching ethics to people is a good idea, as long as they are old enough to understand the reasoning. Being a biology undergraduate at university, I came across a module of scientific ethics in my second year, and it was well taught. It was all new to me, and I wish I'd had a better grounding in it from earlier on. The general public could have a much better understanding of the important ethics behind issues such as GM foods which would help to correct the mistaken generalisations taken from the media.

But my main message is proceed with caution. Teaching, for example, the ethics of abortion to pupils of differing religions could generate inter-racial friction between them, before they are old enough to fully understand the other social and economic issues behind topics such as these. We have to be old enough to deal with these sorts of things. Should it be down to your parents to teach scientific ethics then?
Olivia, UK

I graduated from Leeds University with a BSc in Information Systems and for one of my electives chose Ethics in Computing. It was a though provoking and interesting module. Teaching ethics in school will provoke thought and discussion and not produce "robots" and some of the previous posts.
Steve Brett, UK

I have been alarmed at recent reports of declining standards in the basic science levels of students entering University education in the UK. Proposals to focus on "soft" science aspects will do nothing to improve standards. While I fully laud the importance of discussions of science morals, this is surely a topic for the school debating society rather than the classroom.
Dr. Ian Billing, Saudi Arabia

The people who suggest that teaching ethics within a scientific context - an essential aspect of modern science - means influencing children to think along certain lines, are simply wrong. The whole idea is to get children to debate ethics, but with a solid basis in ethical theory. It actually achieves the opposite of brainwashing - when people go to work, in science or anywhere else, if they are ignorant of ethical debates they are more likely to go along with the groupthink prevailing in their organisation. Thus, scientists are for science, priests are against (to oversimplify). We want our children to be well-informed in ethical debate so as to make their own minds up as to what is acceptable to them, having first weighed the arguments.
Dafydd Lewis, UK

They are not suitable subjects for expending mental effort on except as a form of casual relaxation

Liam, UK
Science deals with facts. Ethics and philosophy are just a load of individual opinions, which vary wildly depending on what language you speak, where you were born and where you live, your sex and your social status. They are not suitable subjects for expending mental effort on except as a form of casual relaxation.
Liam, UK

We need to teach "Humanism" as a subject. Humanism encourages people to take responsibility for their own morals and their own lives, and for the lives of their communities and the world in which we live. Humanists emphasise reason and scientific inquiry, individual freedom and responsibility, human values and compassion, and the need for tolerance and cooperation. Alongside this, we should educate our children in the purpose of religions and why they have failed, instead of trying to indoctrinate kids in one religion or another.
Andy Fish, UK

Mark Newdick says schools should only teach "facts". This is very dangerous and surely we need our kids to explore their minds and the world rather than be indoctrinated, as we were as kids with subjects like Religious Knowledge. Moral ethics should be an important discussion at school, but please don't let it be "taught".
Andy Brown, UK

Teachers have enough trouble keeping up with the National Curriculum without adding yet another facet to their impossibly heavy workload. However, perhaps this subject is interesting and topical and could be used to encourage younger secondary school children to express their point of view. This question should be raised under another compulsory National Curriculum subject - RE, where moral issues and ethics are important areas covered within this subject.
John Andrews, England

To "teach" the ethics of science is a misguided approach - you cannot impose a simplistic set of values on a group of individuals that has little or no experience to compare your views with. But to acknowledge that there are consequences of our actions, be it in the field of science or in day-to-day life, is a lesson which is sadly lacking from schools, and society, today.
Nick, UK

Here we go again. Whose ethics? There are many other concepts that have not been satisfactorily explained, such as, standards, norms, conventions etc. Standards, for example, are some arbitrary value, imposed by somebody or a group of persons, against which other values are assessed. Similarly ethics, which again is a set of arbitrary moral values against which other values are judged. Now from the globalisation process, whose ethical values should be taught in schools? Some values were imposed on Africa by the West, for example, from which it is still recovering. Not again so soon!
Vincent E. Bua, Uganda

It is all very well to say that pupils should be taught the ethical side of science but this varies from person to person. A vegetarian teacher is surely more likely to give a negative image to animal testing than, for example, an ex-pharmacist who has seen the benefits of the testing that could not have been obtained any other way, for example, insulin. There are always people who oppose and support various sciences and will, if given the power, put their own spin on subjects, even if told to remain neutral. My view is teach the facts and let us make up our own minds, we are intelligent enough to do that at least.
Adam Dennis, UK (pupil)

Such considerations can do nothing but benefit children

BS McIntosh, Sweden (ex-UK)
To teach ethics is not teach people what is right or wrong. To teach moral philosophy is not to teach people what is right or wrong. It is to teach, and more importantly to discuss, what the concepts of right and wrong mean and to bring to the fore the range of choices that each of us has when making decisions, whether these are concerned with use of new technology and science or otherwise. I think that at least introducing such considerations can do nothing but benefit children. I am not sure how best to do it though - within or outwith science classes? Perhaps RE should gradually be changed into a subject looking at morals and ethics overall?
BS McIntosh, Sweden (ex-UK)

The mental discipline and moral awareness developed in the contemplative study of the original works of philosophy may be the most neglected discipline in the Western world today and society reflects this neglect. The more we neglect it, the more Orwellian Western society becomes. That being said, most schools, particularly government run schools, do indeed indoctrinate students towards certain social ideals; those being the ones of consequence-free and responsibility-free liberalism, anti-religion bigotry and increasingly, new concepts of regional and global socialism. Which brings us right back to the Orwellian nature in government and society again... we're witnessing cause and effect.
Stephen, US

I do not agree Sarah. That's a basic problem these days - the politically correct saying we cannot teach people how to behave. My parents taught me as have parents all over the world. I have built on that reading philosophy which to me is invaluable, something else that children should learn.
Jay, England

The world's great villains knew good from evil; they just chose evil. Teaching morality and judgment is not the some as instilling it. If we chose corruption it is despite, not because of our knowledge.
Colin Butts, USA

Ethics and morals are basic general knowledge that should be assumed in anyone attending high school. I'm surprised that such things are not already discussed in philosophy classes at that level here in the UK, and suggesting that these issues should be "merged" into Science classes is pure nonsense.
Dan, Scotland (Portuguese)

Not only do school children have under-informed, half-baked views on science; they also have them on politics, religion, sex, race etc. That's not surprising: they're children. But why blame the teachers for this, not the parents? Why do we British seek every opportunity to insult and criticise our teachers, our policemen, our servicemen and our doctors and nurses, then expect them to selflessly bust themselves for us - for derisory pay.

There is a place - an important place - for debate in the upbringing of children. It's a skill that's extremely important in the workplace as well as outside; it's just that there's a limit to how much school can pack into its busy day. First you need to gain the scientific background at school - then you can have the reasoned debate. Let's concentrate on getting the basics right first.
Nicholas Smith, Japan

Having taught science at a variety of secondary schools in the UK, Kenya and Swaziland, I came to the conclusion some time ago that a values-based approach is essential if science teaching is to equip our children and young adults with critical thinking skills and personal qualities such as integrity, honesty, responsibility and respect, so that they can tackle the challenges of the future with confidence, understanding and maturity. I believe that values exist naturally in every human being - they just need to be re-awakened through providing a supportive learning environment, suitable resources and, most importantly, through teachers, parents and other adults that act as role models for such values.
Helen Sayers, Switzerland

Ethical judgements have no part to play in the scientific method, since they can neither support nor undermine a scientific hypothesis. The real or potential application of some scientific discoveries may have moral or ethical considerations, but this is a matter for individual conscience and the engineers of social policy.
Michael Rogers, USA

One step at a time. Lets ensure that young people at school learn the basics of science itself before we cloud their minds with such subtle issues as this. Moral and ethical issues are meant to be the domain of PSE. Unfortunately most teachers (I say this with some authority) can't stand PSE. Resolve that one and then we might tackle the issue raised in this forum.
Philip S Hall, England

I agree that there's no such thing as the "ethics of science" and that scientific laws are inherently amoral. Nonetheless scientists don't just manipulate equations; they also design experimental protocols, and methodology definitely has ethical dimensions. It is shocking how often in the past scientists have failed to even consider the ethical import of their experiments. A good ethics program would not indoctrinate scientists into a particular moral code, but simply alert them to the need to consider the ethical dimensions of their experimental designs.
Peter Nelson, USA

Science lessons are not the place for "ethics". Many people struggle to come to terms with the factual principles as it is, without clouding the issues with this year's opinion on what's PC or not PC. Having said that, there should be a place for ethical considerations in schools - of politics, religions, business practices, lifestyle choices, and yes, the use of scientific knowledge too.
David / Milton Keynes, UK

Raising awareness of the ethical issues behind scientific advances is an important part of scientific progress. Consequently informed discussion can only be a good thing. Who leads the discussion is something else. Ethics are complex and often subjective and any discussion in a "teaching" context needs to be carefully handled. We need to look at the most effective way of training teachers to deal with this.
Mrs Patch,UK

Are we talking about the traditional morality, or the modern politically correct if it feels good do it ethics?
Richard T. Ketchum, USA

Some of your correspondents seem to confuse the teaching of ethics with the indoctrination of a particular set of moral values. Instead ethics is about how we derive those morals, what fundamental principles we use, so we can consider new cases as they arise and come to our own conclusions on morals. It is philosophy rather than science, and this is no bad thing. We should be teaching children to think for themselves rather than blindly following beliefs or religion, and ethics as an introduction to philosophy does just that.
Neil, England

Which ethics do we teach, who's moral judgements do we impose. In such a diverse society, with so many opposing morals, ideals, cultural and religious taboos how do we choose which to teach in schools?
Colin Wright, UK

We definitely need a discussion of ethics. Blaming scientists is like a tradesman blaming his tools for doing a bad job. We, and our politicians, have to realise that scientists do the job that they are supposed to do which is to push the boundaries of knowledge through research. They are not responsible for what we do with this knowledge. We are responsible ourselves because we make the choices. Scientists just present us with the opportunities.
Bilal Patel, London, UK

Science may be value free but the application of science is most certainly not. As a science educator, I have held many discussions with students on the social impact of science. Students appreciate the opportunity to express and explore their views and to find out how others view the same subject. Teaching science ethics is not New Labour brainwashing but a chance to equip future generations with a rational way to interpret scientific progress - whatever their final opinion happens to be.
Dominic Delaney, UK

The problem it seems to me is where do you get your ethics and moral values from? At present society has turned away from the Bible/revealed religion, but the void this leaves means that materialistic science can have little or no idea of the difference between right and wrong, if indeed there is such a difference. We are left groping around in the dark tying to find some sort of consensus to pass on to future generations. It doesn't bode well.
Ken Beach, Germany

Surely if children are educated properly they are capable of deciding their own ethics. This is not something that can be taught like times tables!
Sarah, UK

Perhaps the term "teaching" implies something too hard and fast

Andi-Tsuyoshi Williams, Japan
In a broad sense, yes - these issues are an integral part of science (and other areas). But perhaps the term "teaching" implies something too hard and fast. Children should be made aware of the ethical issues, take part in discussions surrounding them, and be invited to take a view.
Andi-Tsuyoshi Williams, Japan

Most scientists begin their careers by obtaining a doctorate of philosophy (as I did). However it is possible to gain this prestigious qualification without even a rudimentary understanding of philosophy. Scientists need to be trained in ethics, morals and indeed the philosophy of science to make them better scientists. Science without ethics is like learning to drive without the Highway Code!
N.A. Gostick, UK

Schools should stick to the basics and leave more complicated matter to university study. The fundamental grammar and arithmetic of any subject must be mastered before its conceptual topics can be seriously considered. Too often inadequately educated children are encouraged to skip these steps and begin airing their crude little opinions on any subject. No wonder they are Bolshevik at 18 and bored at 20.
Peter Smith, UK

Pupils should all be taught philosophy

Dr Duncan Campbell, UK
Why just ethics? Why just science? Pupils should all be taught philosophy, including rhetoric. Maybe then people will be able to formulate arguments and debate properly.
Dr Duncan Campbell, UK

All French students, in their last year at lycee (17-18 years old), are taught philosophy - not just morals or ethics which may only represent one view. This is the place, I think, to study the implications of science. Science lessons are just not the right place.
Pascal Jacquemain, UK (French)

Science ethics must be addressed in schools. The only way this could be done however, would be in the context of religious education. At last something interesting for RE teachers to discuss. Leave science lessons for learning about science.
Matt, UK

Ethics in general should be taught from birth onwards by parents

Debbie Wilmot, UK
The science classroom is not a place to tell children what is and what isn't 'acceptable' research. Ethics in general should be taught from birth onwards by parents, and only reinforced in schools. Every child should be taught the difference between right and wrong, and taught how to determine their own personal moral limits. Any scientific research that takes place beyond school should be bounded only by the broader morals of that society, and the conscience of the scientist. The 'big brother' approach to ethics will cause much more harm than good in the long term.
Debbie Wilmot, UK

Science is a tool we use to interpret the world around us. As with any tool, it is amoral - it merely helps provide knowledge. What people do with such knowledge may be open to ethical debate, but there is no such thing as the 'ethics of science' any more than the ethics of a hammer or drill. If the research shows that children form opinions not based on scientific fact, then teach them correct facts, not force an arbitrary ethical opinion on them!
Philip, London, UK

The goal of all education is to make pupils more aware about what goes on around them

Edwina Ramsay, Norway (ex. UK)
The ethical questions which science and technology brings up should be discussed in school. This is not a way of indoctrinating children with fixed notions of right and wrong, as some respondents seem to think, but rather creating an atmosphere in which pupils may be allowed to discuss such issues freely. The goal of all education is to make pupils more aware about what goes on around them, and they should learn to participate more actively in matters that concern society and indeed the whole of mankind.
Edwina Ramsay, Norway (ex. UK)

'Teaching' ethics/ morals is just another step towards brainwashing children into thinking what people in power want them to think.
Neil R, UK

In the modern world, the younger generation seems to be more interested in making quick money at the cost of bidding goodbye to ethical values. This negligence will lead to disaster in society and affect human relationships. While teaching ethics as a subject, teachers should be broadminded and should not try to thrust anything on students.
Albert P'Rayan, Rwanda/ India

I agree with the Wellcome Trust report

Dr Jon Copley, UK
I teach science at university level and train scientists in communication skills. I agree with the Wellcome Trust report: the present school curriculum does not provide a basic foundation of scientific literacy for pupils to debate the ethics of science. Some of my colleagues who have entered secondary school teaching have been shocked at the lack of scientific literacy shown by many other trainees (some of whom do not understand basics such as gravity, what a gene is etc). Unless those areas are addressed, you risk simply generating more uninformed debate - just like that seen in the mainstream media on most of these subjects e.g. GM, IVF.
Dr Jon Copley, UK

When I was at school, we had one lesson a week on current affairs. It was in this lesson that we discussed various actual and moral happenings of the week. Also in RE there were often debates on moral matters, teenage pregnancy being the favourite. However I doubt if there is time in the modern curriculum to fit in such lessons. Science lessons should teach just that, science.
Steve Gibson, UK

What a splendid idea! In future schools will produce robotic- like children totally brainwashed into following the politically correct nature of our big brother like government. George Orwell would be proud.
Martin, England

What relevance do ethics have to the day to day curriculum of school science?

Bill Cook, UK
Ethics in a science lesson? How absurd. While schools might have a duty to teach ethics, I fail to see why this is singled out as being the job of the science department. What relevance do ethics have to the day to day curriculum of school science which, as I recall, consists of such things as the laws of thermodynamics, Newtonian models of gravity and the periodic table?
Bill Cook, UK

The danger is that to teach ethics at school, especially nowadays, essentially means to teach the current government's stand on ethics. Each generation has to discover its own standards.
Malcolm McMahon, York, UK

When faced with an "ethical" question, I imagine that a teacher would fall back on his/her own moral standards in response. Quite frankly, though, controversial scientific morality questions are best left to university courses as trying to teach them in schools is inappropriate; schools are for learning "facts" ... universities are interpreting those facts and expanding the knowledge base.
Mark M. Newdick, US/ UK

How can you possibly expect to 'teach' a child morals? This is something that develops from a person's beliefs or religion, and I don't see how this could be taught in a balanced way.
Phil, UK

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