Over this autumn school term, members of our Education Advisory Group are sharing thoughts and ideas based on their own experience of how bioethics and debate can be useful in education contexts. This post is written by Andy Greenfield, Programme Leader in Developmental Genetics at the Medical Research Council Harwell, STEM Ambassador and Member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

* Quote from Albert Einstein

Over recent years, in my capacity as a STEM ambassador, I have had the opportunity to visit some secondary schools to discuss biology and ethics with pupils in the age range of 14-18 years. Sometimes this combination of science and ethics has been an explicit request on the part of the school – such as when I was asked to contribute to a discussion on science and religion. On other occasions I have been asked to discuss some aspect of my own scientific research – such as the genetic control of embryonic development – but I have incorporated an element of bioethics because it seems to me that young people find the combination stimulating: it reminds them that what scientists do involves making choices, sometimes difficult ones. I believe that both science and ethics can become more interesting to the uninitiated when combined.

Some topics that I have addressed include old favourites, such as the manipulation of the human germ line to combat disease or the use of animals in scientific research. The Council’s own reports on mitochondria and animal research have been enormously helpful in framing subsequent discussions. However, I usually resort to a warm-up routine consisting of the now famous trolley-problems**. These thought experiments, concerning choices one has in changing the fate of unfortunate individuals who have found themselves, or may find themselves, in the path of a runaway trolley (tram, train), are useful introductions to ethics. They allow audience participation – which gives young people the (sometimes too rare) opportunity to speak – and they are not intrinsically technical (but can be fiendishly difficult to interpret). They nicely introduce some of the central concepts of ethical thinking (the importance of deliberation, desire, intentions, emotions, consequences, duties, rights, truth, etc.) using language that is straightforward and often amusing. I then move on to discussing specific examples of current scientific research that are challenging for bioethicists – preferably using the prompt of a recent scientific publication or journalist’s article in a magazine. The latter also offers the opportunity to consider how translating the description of often technical and highly complex phenomena into everyday (non-technical) language can be fraught with dangers of over-simplification and misunderstanding.

It would be difficult to summarise my experiences of these school visits, given the variety of topics and settings - from elite private schools educating tomorrow’s leaders to state schools that face greater challenges in engaging pupils. However, I would choose to make two general points. i) Young people can become very enthusiastic about science and ethics if they are offered concrete examples of contemporary problems i.e. if they can see that their world is being strongly influenced by decisions taken now concerning technology and its applications; ii) they have a tendency towards ethical relativism i.e. they tend to subscribe to the idea that what is wrong as far as they are concerned may not be wrong for others. I often try to discuss issues with which young people will be familiar, such as abortion. I am struck by how often a pupil might say that they feel strongly about such an issue – “I would never have an abortion,” for example – but when asked whether their stance had implications for how they judged the behavior of others, they are often puzzled. “What they do is up to them,” would be a common answer. So the universalizing tendency that ethics has – of moving from I-should-not-do-this to nobody-should-do-this - is one that many young people are not confident in making. Indeed, some even feel uncomfortable with the move from I-do-not-like-this to I-should-not-do-this. My survey is hardly extensive or “scientific” – so it would be premature to conclude that there is a widespread ethical relativism that requires an explanation; perhaps adults are similarly disposed and I simply do not engage enough of them in ethical debate (which is probably true for some reason that may also require explanation). No doubt an experimental philosopher somewhere has data that are relevant to this issue. My only conclusion is that point i) above suggests that bioethics (or scientific ethics, more broadly) could feature more prominently in the curriculum – not necessarily as a component of science lessons but as a subject in its own right – and that this would give the opportunity for young people to think more carefully about what ethical thinking is, how it differs from expressions of taste and, of course, why it matters to them.

** See original formulations and developments in Philippa Foot, The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect, Oxford Review, no. 5 (1967) and Judith Jarvis Thomson, The Trolley Problem, The Yale Law Journal, 94, no. 6, 1395-1415.

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