Was recently discussing with science teacher colleagues the extent to which we have a responsibility to teach not just science, but the ethics of science. It's easy to agree that we all have a moral obligation not to let bias intrude upon our presentation of facts. On the other hand, how do we talk about climate change while pretending not to editorialize about mankind's responsibility to preserve the earth for future generations? How do we talk about genetic engineering without awkwardly skirting the potential risks of interfering with the gene pool? How do we talk about stem cell research funding without stumbling into a discussion of which diseases/disorders are "highest priority"? See what I mean?
Naturally, the first thing I had to do was rush off and compile a list of ethical issues that my curriculum brushes by on its way from September to June. The following 50+ issues don't even scratch the surface, which gives you an idea of the vastness of the potential issue. Time for us to consider mandating a course in ethics as part of the high school curriculum?
1. Thanks to CRISPR, we can now grow "designer babies" with whatever traits we want. Should we?
2. A scientist uses CRISPR to modify a gene that can be used to implant a desirable trait: for instance, a resistance to heart disease. They want to patent the gene and sell it like a medication. Should they be allowed to do this?
3. Thanks to cloning, we may soon be able to clone human beings. Should we?
4. Some parents are having babies in hopes of finding organ or marrow donors for siblings with cancer or other diseases. Should parents be able to “force” these babies to donate organs or marrow to their siblings?
5. Using "biologicals" to cure cancer may soon become a possibility - but the technology is sure to be super-expensive. Health insurance companies would go bankrupt if they had to cover these procedures for everyone. So, who should have access?
6. Genetic testing now makes it possible to know if a baby is going to be born with a high risk factor for a particular disease. Under what circumstances, if any, do we use this information to decide whether a baby should be “allowed” to be born?
7. Should we allow organisms to go extinct? Under what circumstances?
8. We have reached the point where we can use DNA to bring back to life organisms that have gone extinct. Should we?
9. We have reached the point where we can genetically engineer new organisms - organisms that have not been tested by Darwinian forces. Should we allow them lose upon the earth?
10. Should health care be an essential human right?
11. Given that there are limited research dollars to spend on research, should we spend the money on saving lives or improving quality of life?
12. Drug companies spend millions of dollars on researching drugs that never prove marketable. Should they be allowed to “recoup” this money by charging more for drugs that do prove marketable?
13. To what extent should we require drug companies to develop therapies for diseases that are so low-incidence (maybe only 100 cases per year), knowing that they will never be able to sell enough to make back the money they spent on research?
14. While we've gotten better at stockpiling antidotes for major toxins, there's rarely enough for everyone. If the U.S. is hit by a plague or biological attack, who should get the antidotes? Who shouldn't?
15. Some drugs for fatal conditions (like cancer) work so well in preliminary animal tests, patients dying of these diseases would like to be able to use them before they have a chance to be tested for safety in humans. Should we allow this?
16. Thanks to fitbit and other medical devices, health insurance companies now have the ability to monitor your personal habits. To what extent should they be allowed to determine coverage based on decisions you make about maintaining (or not maintaining) your health?
17. Should health companies be able to determine the rates people pay for health insurance based on their genetic probability of developing expensive health issues?
18. We are coming close to the day when we might be able to indefinitely postpone death. Should we?
19. Thanks to genetic engineering, it may soon become possible to "enhance" the athletic ability of athletes - for example, equip them with blood cells that hold more oxygen. Should this be allowed? Should these athletes then be allowed to compete professionally?
20. In the interests of learning more about how viruses work, scientists have the technology to create "superviruses" - strains that are immune to all known antibiotics or antidotes. Should scientists be allowed to develop these strains of superviruses and, if so, under what conditions?
21. What responsibility (if any) do we have to preserve the earth for future generations?
22. Technologies to mitigate the impacts of climate change - such as seawalls and desalination plants - are sure to be expensive. What do we take funding away from to fund these projects?
23. Science has proven that nuclear energy is a relatively "clean" power source, in that it emits no CO2. However, it does create spent nuclear rods, which are a huge environmental danger. Also, there's always the risk that an unforeseen event will trigger a massive radiation leak. Do you switch your country from gas to nuclear?
24. Thanks to the impacts of climate change, crop and water shortages may soon drive up the cost of essential resources - food, water. How do we decide who gets what?
25. Some island countries will disappear when sea level rise due to climate change inundates low-lying landmasses. What happens to the citizenship and rights of the citizens of these countries?
26. Cutting a major forest will provide enough jobs and money to make a community self sustaining; however, habitat destruction will result in the extinction of several species. How do you weigh the needs of the people against the potential risks of extinction?
27. In the Potomac River, an invasive fish (Snakehead) population is destroying the community of organisms native to the river. Scientists discover another species that feeds only on Snakeheads, and propose that we add this species to the Potomac River so they can fix the problem. Is this a good idea?
28. Large cities produce lots of light pollution. This light pollution interrupts natural sleep cycles and makes it difficult to see the stars. Should we fix light pollution?
29. If climate change-related disasters lead to the disappearance or destruction of entire countries, then what will happen to citizens of those countries? What rights should they be granted (or not granted)?
30. Models show that eventually Earth will reach its carrying capacity with respect to the number of humans the planet can sustain. Do we try to prevent this from happening? If so, how do we go about it?
31. One day soon we may be able to land humans on planets where life already exists. Do we have the right to take over other worlds? Under what circumstances, if any, might we not have that right?
32. 3D virtual reality games "feel" just like the real thing. Knowing this, should we allow people to create and market super-violent video games? What about super-intoxicating pleasant experiences?
33. Scientists discover a "violence gene" - a gene that, when dominant, can trigger violent rages. Do we put such people in jail before they commit a crime? Do we allow them to use this as a mitigating circumstance (like mental illness) in a court trial?
34. We are close to the point where we can incorporate "truth-sensing" technologies into everyday devices such as Google glasses. Should we do so?
35. Research is continuing to reveal that animals possess more intelligence and emotional depth than we ever imagined. Should we continue to use animals in drug testing? Should we continue using them as food?
36. We're very close to "synchronicity" - the moment at which robots become sentient. When they do, should they be granted the same rights as humans enjoy?
37. Three countries still have samples of "smallpox." Should smallpox ever be weaponized?
38. We've created nuclear weapons with the capacity to kill millions of people at once. Should we use them?
39. The day when everyone has access to self-driving cars is approaching. If someone dies in a collision, whose fault is it? How many "accidental deaths" are we willing to accept in exchange for the convenience of this technology?
40. Hackers have figured out how to hack into medical equipment. To what extent is it justifiable, during a war, to disable the medical equipment (pacemakers, etc.) of the enemy?
41. Science has played a role in creating a number of non-lethal weapons systems, to include laser missiles, blinding weapons, pain rays, heat rays, disabling malodorants, etc. Some of these may cause lasting health consequences. To what extent should we deploy these weapons in war?
42. Sending robots (drones) into battle means sparing humans the ordeal of having to kill others with their own hands. Is this a good idea?
43. We now have medications that may be able to "soften" the horrible memories that trigger conditions like PTSD. Should we use them?
44. You're working on an amazing new technology that might cure cancer. Unfortunately, the results of your first trials have not been unambiguously positive. For this reason, your sponsors want to withdraw your funding. You're SURE your solution will work given more research. Do you "fudge" your results to keep your funding?
45. A person of average intelligence is asked if they want to participate in a highly complicated clinical trial. The explanation of what's going to be done to them is far too scientific for them to completely understand either the benefits or risks. Do you allow them to give consent?
46. An island nation is slowly dying of starvation. You develop a technology that will allow them to survive on algae from the surrounding ocean; however, you also know that in a few years, when the algae runs out, not only will the people die, but all the organisms that relied on algae for food or dissolved oxygen will die as well. Do you implement the technology?
47. NASA has proposed a manned mission to Mars. Should we allow any citizens who colonize the planet to have children? If so, what nationality would they be, and what rights would they have?
48. Soon we may be able to travel back in time. Should we try to fix mistakes that we've made in the past (like allowing the Nazis to come to power), or should we leave things the way they are/were?
49. We have recently invented particle colliders capable of creating anti-matter. Should we do this?
50. Thanks to the undoing of net neutrality, service providers can now "throttle" the bandwidth of specific websites - to include websites that compete with them, or even websites that endorse political opinions with which they disagree. To what extent should this be allowed (or controlled)?
51. Bandwidth and spectrum are not unlimited. How do we decide who does (and doesn't) get to access these resources?
52. Improvements in surveillance systems like Google Earth may soon make it possible to track people's movements. Should this be allowed? If so, under what circumstances?