Bringing Ethics in Chemistry to Universities

Bringing Ethics in Chemistry to Universities

Author: Vera Köster, Jan Mehlich

Dr. Jan Mehlich has developed and recorded a unique online class on ethics in chemistry for the master and Ph.D. level. Supported by the European Chemical Society (EuChemS), a test phase for the class will start next winter semester at selected universities.

Dr. Jan Mehlich holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and a Master in Applied Ethics. He is a lecturer of science and technology ethics at Tunghai University, Taichung, Taiwan. Here, he talks to Dr. Vera Koester for ChemViews Magazine about the importance of ethics in chemistry, how it is perceived in different cultures and how this has changed over time, and what the online class will change.



What do we mean by ethics in chemistry?

For many chemists, it is a matter of research ethics, a form of professional ethics, concerning what scientists do in the lab and how to do it well. We know many cases of fraud that have been reported, for example, those commonly called FFP (falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism) and related issues such as misconduct in publishing scientific insights, conflicts of interest when collaborating, or mentorship problems. Additionally, animal experimentation is a hot topic for some chemists. However, we often find that this definition is not broad enough. The societal and environmental impacts of scientific and technological progress are discussed on various public and political levels. In this normative, i.e., value-related, discourse on priorities and how we want to live, chemists with their particular expertise play an important role. Chemistry is a key science for making human activities on this planet sustainable.



Is ethics a relatively new topic?

It is not a new topic from the perspective of ethicists or those who are concerned about ethics in science. It has been debated for several decades. However, it is a new topic in terms of bringing it into the curricula of chemistry or other science education. Many faculties and many universities are neither willing nor very fond of the idea of spending considerable lecture time on this kind of topic. We had a similar situation when introducing lectures on toxicology or legal aspects for chemists. It took several years to convince faculties to include these topics in the obligatory education of a chemist.

Another problem is that there are not many lecturers that can teach ethics. There have been some negative experiences with asking external experts, for example, from a philosophy department or the sociology of science. Scholars in these fields do great work, but their focus is sometimes too far from the actual practice of a chemist.



What got you interested in ethics? And when did this happen?

It was around 2010. I was a Ph.D. student and did research on nano-scale surface patterning. I noticed that there was an ongoing debate on the ethical and social implications of nanoscience. I found that, as scientists, we have a lot to say about this and it is very important that we do because the ethicists and sociologists or policymakers that debate these issues do not have our background. At the beginning of nanoethics, as it was called, there was a lot of speculation about what it is. People discussed self-replicating nanobots in the bloodstream and “grey-goo” scenarios, almost like science fiction. This was not what was actually going on in nanoscience. So, I started to become interested in closing this gap. Those who work in the field know what the current state of the art is, and what could be possible in the next five to ten years. It is absolutely necessary that scientists engage in societal debates. Otherwise, these debates—without any basis in scientific facts—are inefficient for the regulation and governance of technological progress.

My university in Münster in Germany offered a master’s course in applied ethics. It covered a lot of medical ethics but also science ethics, technology ethics, political ethics, and so forth, where we learned, shall we say, a very different way of arguing compared to scientific discourse. A philosophical or ethical statement is very different from a chemical paper. We learned how to think in these terms.

Fortunately, I had a chance to combine my chemical expertise with my education in applied ethics. When EuChemS started the “Chemistry and Ethics” working party a few years ago, I became a member.



You teach science and technology ethics at Tunghai University in Taichung in Taiwan. How do your students react to your course?

In the evaluation questionnaires my students filled out at the end of the class, I received positive feedback. Some of them reflected on what is meant by good scientific methodology, what is good scientific conduct in the lab, and they also reflected on the social implications of their work. They go back to the lab and rethink their experiments.

As far as I can tell, most of them would not commit fraud anyway, but what is improved is their awareness of it in case other people around them act unethically. Therefore, I would say the biggest gain for them is that they feel more confident talking to their professors or maybe later their bosses by having a good strategy of argumentation. For example, when there is a conflict of interest or there are mentorship issues, the biggest question is “How do I address this?”. By, for example, teaching them the virtues of scientific conduct, they can use this as an argument and they have a clearer idea of how to approach someone higher up in the hierarchy. This is especially an issue in Asia.



Do you think the topic has become more relevant or more people have become interested in it with the increase of discussions in society and more environmental awareness?

There is indeed an increasing awareness of these topics. Until the 1970s there was a very positivistic belief in the progress of science and technology, and there were few ethical issues raised. Scientists and other drivers of progress believed that science and technology were neutral and must be neutral. Thinking about responsibility was not the scientist’s concern. This has changed massively. The currently predominant paradigm of “social constructivism” relates scientific activity closely with goals and purposes, with societal and individual worldviews, and with normative foundations like value and belief systems. Everything is debatable, even the choice of research topics, for example, whether a chemist decides to do green or sustainable chemistry rather than, let’s say, army funded research on explosives that could be used for missiles. Indeed, it is very difficult to find research that is totally free from any normative component.

Based on this understanding, which has been massively growing since the 1980s, institutions for technology assessment and scientific policy advice have been established in the EU and its member states. This, of course, has an effect on how scientists do their science. Many professors now face the fact that whenever they engage in larger research projects, for example, funded by the EU, there is an obligatory work package on ethical and social implications of the intended research output.



But this has not lead to a well-defined understanding of ethics in chemistry as you said earlier.

Yes, for many chemists, and even those who promote ethics in chemistry, the topic is often thought of as research ethics. Because of my background, coming from technology assessment, I also think of what we call ‘external responsibilities’. It is not only about what we do in the lab, it is also about how what we do impacts the wider world, the environment, and society.



What do you think causes this gap?

It seems to cause many chemists a lot of trouble to take external responsibilities into account. For them, it is already enough to consider possible cases of fraud, of how to apply scientific methodology correctly, about questions like when it is ok to omit data. This has directly to do with their work as a chemist.

Many think that the societal impact is not their concern; that it is engineering ethics, business ethics, and political ethics. Sometimes it is very difficult to convince scientists that there needs to be an ongoing discussion with society, and that an increased awareness among scientists in taking part in these discourses increases the efficiency of sustainable science and technology governance, the credibility of scientific experts, and—not to forget—the social acceptance of the expensive endeavor “science”.



Is this different in different countries?

Yes, definitely. To give you an example from my own experience of what I think is very exemplary for the understanding in Asia: When I went to South Korea to look for a postdoc position, I met many scientists who told me, “Germany is already a world-leading country. You have the luxury to talk about ethics. We first have to make sure that our students reach that level before we can talk about ethics.” They were even afraid, as one professor told me, that if I plant such ideas into the students’ brains, they will not have enough time to do their research. Therefore, they refused to work with me.

In many Asian countries, like South Korea, Taiwan, and China, they first want their share of the cake, so to say. They say now it is their turn to develop a sophisticated industry, economic wealth and so on. Research ethics and even technology ethics are a topic but always in terms of how economic competitiveness can be increased. Also in research ethics, the only convincing argument is that misconduct leads to economic loss. It damages reputation and decreases the chances of a good income. So, the thinking often focusses very much on money but not so much on the impact on society.

In addition, I still sense the worry that ethics means the moral finger that says you cannot do this, you should not do this. Therefore, in the video classes, I try to convince that this is not the case. Ethics does not mean restrictions. We do not talk about morality but we talk about cases in which it might not be clear to the scientist in a certain situation what would be the right thing to do. And then, of course, it is always good to have some orientation.



How is the online course organized? How many classes and hours of lectures does it comprise?

I recorded 16 video classes of 45–60 minutes each. Together with a lot of additional material on the e-learning platform via which it is provided, like reading assignments, chemical example cases, practice questions, and discussion forums, the workload for one class is around two hours. In the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) system, this would be equivalent to two ECTS credits. However, the course is flexible. This was very important to us from the beginning. It is very important to keep the class more or less open for the participating universities to select which classes are necessary or important for them.

To give an example: I have made a class on animal experiments. If at a particular department or university there is nobody doing animal experiments and they see this as not relevant for chemists, they may skip that class. At the same time, it can be, of course, that in some institutions there is a very special topic that they need to talk about. So, they can combine our offer in this online course with their own classes in the case that there is someone who can lecture on that. They can, for example, choose to use ten videos and add two of their own classes. This is up to the university.

The approach of the course is relatively new. As a chemist, I can understand how chemists think and what is important to them. I based the online course on my teaching experience and refined the material for chemistry students by bringing in more chemistry related examples and cases.



Are there core classes they have to include?

We have decided to assign five core classes that are mandatory for all students. These include classes on scientific misconduct, scientific publishing, sustainability, scientific methodology—that is, how to apply logic and how to make and analyze hypotheses in chemical research—, and on how to deal with conflicts of interest in light of current funding practices—that is, how funding from governments or from industry undermine scientific integrity.



The course does not need a lecturer at the university. But there needs to be somebody to accompany the course in person?

Exactly. A university should assign someone to be locally responsible. Somebody has to set up the e-learning platform and give the students access. For reasons of copyright, the course is not fully open access but runs under an education license. These local organizers also provide the students with the necessary information. We have prepared a lot of additional material besides the videos like pre-assessments—before students watch the video they answer some questions—, questionnaires to check if the students have understood the topic and learned something, and, of course, material for possible exams.

I also believe such a course is only effective when people talk about this in-between the classes when they go back to their lab and can relate what they heard in the class directly to their daily work.



So, what is the next step now?

The idea is that this winter term some universities will participate in a pilot or test phase to see how useful the online course is in practice. Based on the feedback, we will improve the class if necessary. And then we will offer this to literally every university in Europe.



We are excited to see this. Thank you for this interview and good luck with the online class.

Jan Philipp Mehlich studied chemistry at the University of Münster, Germany. He gained a master’s degree in applied ethics in 2009 and a Ph.D. for work on surface patterning by microcontact printing from the same university in 2011. Jan Mehlich worked as an Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) researcher on nanoparticles for medical applications at the Europäische Akademie zur Erforschung von Folgen wissenschaftlich-technischer Entwicklungen, Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler GmbH, Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany, before taking a postdoctoral position at National Chung Hsing University, Taichung, Taiwan, in 2015. He is currently a lecturer of science and technology ethics at Tunghai University, Taichung, Taiwan.


Selected Publications


Leave a Reply

Kindly review our community guidelines before leaving a comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *