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Class Feature: Ethical Issues in Biotechnology

Most undergraduate students have taken an ethics course at some point in their careers. At NCSU, many of those courses are for students pursuing any degree. Although this can be beneficial for providing perspective during in-class discussions, some of the topics discussed may never come up in a particular student’s life. In contrast, the BIT program’s Ethical Issues in Biotechnology course (BIT 501) explores many of the particular ethical issues a research scientist might experience during their career. It also lets students present and discuss specific topics that are important to them.

“It’s okay to be uncomfortable, and you can be uncomfortable out loud here.”

-Dr. Dums

Dr. Dums, a BIT Program teaching post-doc, has been teaching and updating BIT 501 for the last two semesters. During the Fall of 2022, Dr. Dums co-instructed with Dr. Cartwright, who had just joined the BIT Program as a post-doc. The two of them picked up the course material and discussed ways to make it a more effective class, including taking out some assignments so that students could focus on the learning and discussions. One thing that has never changed as different instructors take over the course is the “safe space” mentality that is adopted as soon as the Zoom room opens. He said, “[All of the post-docs agreed] we needed to set this up. Students need to be able to explore. We need to be able to feel safe in being wrong and awkward, because learning is uncomfortable. It’s okay to be uncomfortable, and you can be uncomfortable out loud here.”

“We use very advanced tools and manipulations, so a good basis in ethics allows us to make good decisions.”

-Dr. Dums

But, why be uncomfortable when you can be comfortable? As scientists, there has to be a level of uncertainty for us to discover new things. However, there is control over the knowledge you use and the decisions you make. “What we do is especially important as scientists, especially in biotechnology where we have access to all of these amazing research tools. We use very advanced tools and manipulations, so a good basis in ethics allows us to make good decisions,” Dr. Dums said of considering the power of a scientist’s decisions. For example, even though sample sizes are one of the most common limitations in human subjects and primate research, taking care of the subjects and doing as little harm as possible is an ethical decision many scientists make every day.

Other ethical issues that research scientists often face include plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification of data, which cover scenarios where ideas are stolen or data is faked to advance a scientist’s career. To understand why these are harmful and also what drives scientists to make poor decisions, the BIT ethics course explores various ethical principles and their importance as well as the current rewards structure for practicing scientists. Dr. Dums puts less emphasis on the ethical theories, which explain how we make decisions (think utilitarian versus virtue), and more emphasis on the principles, which explain why we make decisions. The author of the textbook for the course also attends as a guest lecturer, expanding on different scenarios the students may face, facilitating discussion on the principles that are in play, and outlining how those principles should guide decisions regarding further action. Many other guest speakers also guide discussions and provide helpful information, such as how to find ethically sourced images, or how to overcome the pressure to use “shady results,” as Dr. Dums said.

 Cover of Responsible Conduct of Research by Adil E. Shamoo and David B. Resnik, the textbook for BIT 501.

Even though students enjoy his teaching, Dr. Dums knows they don’t want to listen to his personal takes and opinions every week. “It’s good to hear a lot of things from other people so that you trust it’s not just one person telling you this,” he said. This is why the class is designed with the first half of the semester featuring guest speakers that introduce new discussion topics, and the second half of the semester being directed through student-led seminars. Students in groups get to choose an ethical dilemma to explore and present to the class. “I love the student seminars when they are giving them because they get to choose something that they care about… Watching them doing that and having the other students interact with them [is] super great,” Dr. Dums said.

“I could easily sway the class or shut down aspects of the class, which I do not want to do. We work really hard to make this class be a safer space for students to explore and talk.”

-Dr. Dums

He also mentioned how the dynamic of this course is completely different from anything else he’s taught. Getting adjusted to the course format can be difficult for both students and the instructors, as it was for Dr. Dums in his first semester. “I could easily sway the class or shut down aspects of the class, which I do not want to do. We work really hard to make this class be a safer space for students to explore and talk,” Dr. Dums said, but this is all dependent on student participation. The style of the class will feel no different from a lecture if students don’t participate, which is why this course has continued to be offered only via Zoom. He explained, “You can unmute and talk, you can use the chat, you can private message us. There are a lot of ways to do communication [over Zoom] that you don’t get in the classroom.”

Dr. Dums highly recommends that every student, no matter the discipline, take an ethics course. BIT 501 is designed for those whose experiences will align more with issues seen in biotechnology/biomanufacturing research settings. However, even if you’re a student in engineering, or wildlife biology, or medicine, an ethics course of some sort should be taken while you’re a student. Because many of the students who enroll in BIT 501 are also active researchers, a lot of the conversations also revolve around personal experiences, and the less experienced students in the class can take a lot away from that.

This course is designed around maintaining a safe space and not making assumptions. Because biotechnology is so interdisciplinary, students in BIT courses come from countless different backgrounds. The BIT Program does not assume everyone knows what true plagiarism is, or the different philosophies people use to make decisions. Dr. Dums said, “Common sense is not always that common,” and it’s a great point to keep in mind for both the instructors and the students taking an ethics course. So, no matter your understanding of research, ethical principles, or data manipulation, the respectful thoughts and experiences you do have are welcome here in BIT Program!