Report on Ethics: Recommendation #1
Table of Contents
Each NABC member institution should ensure that subject matter on ethical issues associated with food and agricultural biotechnology is systematically integrated into the curriculum of their institution.
Consistent with the emphasis on ethics as the establishment of competencies in thinking and communicating, the committee has devoted the lion's share of its energy to a discussion of the role of ethics within the educational programs of NABC member institutions. Clearly there is an enormous variety in the student bodies, faculty and curricular structure at NABC member institutions, and some have no classroom teaching component at all. As the pattern for implementing this recommendation will vary at each institution, the committee undertook a lively discussion of three options.
Option 1: Include modules on ethical issues within the scientific and technical curriculum
The idea here is that scientific faculty will include modules on ethics both in formal classes and in laboratory teaching or seminars. The range of modules that might be included is as extensive as are the methods. There might be a packet of readings on a particular subject or a decision case. Teaching methods might involve collaboration with faculty from other departments, or the use of film and Internet resources. Since scientific faculty are not trained for teaching such modules, and often too busy to engage in an open-ended search for these materials, this approach presupposes institutional support that will provide training when needed, and make materials readily available.
The strengths of this approach are many. To the extent that faculty cooperate in including modules, it provides a way to integrate ethics throughout a curriculum without undertaking changes in the structure of the curriculum. Students are broadly exposed to ethical issues at multiple points in their education, and when they see scientific faculty taking these issues seriously, they are likely to do so themselves. When modules are well matched to technical subject matter, ethical issues can be seen as integral to planning and decision making with respect to research and product development. The weaknesses are two. One is that piecemeal teaching of ethics may not provide the more systematic overview of general approaches that students would get in a course on philosophy, history or communication. The other is that faculty with little incentive or support for taking on these approaches will either do so poorly or not at all.
This second weakness erodes what might be thought of as an advantage from an administrative viewpoint, namely budget neutrality. Although this approach might be financially attractive if NABC institutions pool resources in providing institutional support, it is not budget neutral. Someone will have to be developing resources, as well as mechanisms to make them available to faculty, and to support scientific faculty who wish to use modules in a variety of teaching and evaluation techniques. This approach is especially dependent on the general institutional support mechanisms discussed in Recommendation 2.
Option 2: Modules within applied ethics courses
Many institutions currently teach undergraduate courses in contemporary moral issues, technology and human values, agricultural or environmental ethics, or any number of other "public issues" courses in philosophy, political science, sociology, geography, agricultural economics and, occasionally, the agricultural sciences. The content for such courses is generally set by individual faculty members or by departmental committees. In most cases, modules or course sections dealing with food and agricultural biotechnology would be intellectually consistent with subject matter currently being taught. Faculty and student interest in the proposed subject matter probably does more to determine whether it will be included or not.
Despite its apparent similarity, this approach has few of the advantages of Option 1. To the extent that published materials are available, this approach comes as close to being truly budget neutral as any. Its effectiveness, however, is utterly haphazard, depending as it does on a host of factors that vary tremendously not only from institution to institution, but from faculty member to faculty member, and indeed from semester to semester. This approach is the status quo at many NABC institutions. Although the members of the committee acknowledge that there is a clear logic to relying on these service courses as a means of achieving our overall objective, those committee members with knowledge of the planning and structure of such courses regard this as a thoroughly unsatisfactory approach. Two strategies might be deployed to enhance the effectiveness of the approach, however.
First, there is no reason why this approach should not be used in connection with Option 1. Workshops or support institutions should be open to liberal arts faculty who wish to use them, and the inclusion of applied ethics courses among science courses including the modules can do no harm. Second, faculty would certainly be willing to include these modules if they had sufficient incentive to do so, and especially when the incentive includes discretionary funds available for research or summer salary. Both of these strategies substantially increase the cost of this option, and given that low cost is its principle advantage, it is questionable whether it is worth pursuing ways of improving this option in more detail.
Option 3: Stand-alone courses
Stand alone courses would be dedicated entirely or substantially to ethical issues in food and agricultural biotechnology. Our committee did not identify the existence of any such course at an institution represented on the committee. Member institutions have courses on agricultural and environmental ethics which may include significant content on food and ag biotechnology, and members of the committee received unconfirmable reports of such courses being taught by a biology professor at UCLA. The advantage of this approach are that it is the best way, given current constraints on curriculum, to provide some subset of students with a comprehensive and coherent view of ethical issues in food and agricultural biotechnology. One can make the argument that our society will never truly be able to cope with the ethical complexities of science and technology until some significant subgroup of our student and faculty populations attain systematic understanding of the full range of ethical issues. Hence, the case here is for training an "elite", if you will, at a high level of sophistication, and coming to rely on them to disseminate ideas on ethics throughout the general population.
The disadvantages are largely practical. Unless such a course were available on a very large scale, which seems highly unlikely, only a fraction of students could take it. This strategy would require the commitment of significant and generally scarce teaching resources to the subject matter on an ongoing basis. It would be difficult for many students to include such a course in their current degree plans. At some institutions, the procedures for development and approval of such a plan are so cumbersome that such courses would not become available until the next century. This option might be more practical, again, if NABC institutions find ways to pool resources. One can envision a course taught using teleconferencing technology, enhanced by the Internet. Such an effort would still require significant resources from each institution, but resources might be far less than the total of having individual faculty at each institution separately prepare and teach this subject matter.
Option 4: Some or all of the above
These are not mutually exclusive options, nor do they exhaust the possibilities. Member institutions can pursue some combination of them simultaneously. New information technology such as the World Wide Web could be used in tandem with any or all of the above approaches to enhance the availability and quality of teaching resources. NABC institutions should be alert to the evolution of this technology in ways that have greater student interaction (with faculty and with one another) than WWW, too. Current technologies such as e-mail and listservs demonstrate the educational potential of the medium, but may also involve significant costs or an inefficient use of resources. We should expect rapid change in this medium, which may present new opportunities.