Should physics students take a course in ethics? A National Science Foundation grant was written by the authors in an attempt (in part) to answer this question. One might first ask, why might physics students take a course in ethics? There are three reasons that might combine to persuade one of the necessity. First, the formal training can be quite practical and useful in the daily life of a physicist, as discussed below. Second, the National Science Teachers Association suggests an ethical component in the training of high school physics teachers (NSTA Standards for Science Teacher Preparation, available at www.nsta.org). Third, there is increasing pressure from the National Science Foundation (NSF document 96-102) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH Guide, V.21, No.43, Nov. 27, 1992).
As of this writing, there are few ethics courses available purely for physics students. The authors know of only two -- the one taught by Marshall Thomsen at Eastern Michigan University, and one taught at Evergreen State College in Washington. Other courses are in development, as the idea/necessity is catching on, and many other more focused courses exist (e.g. on specific societal issues). One barrier to the development of such courses that has come to the authors' attention (and to the attention of others considering such a course) is the lack of a suitable textbook. The aforementioned grant was written, in part, to begin development of a textbook by holding an ethics workshop, the proceedings from which would become the basis of a text.
In an attempt to gather information from the physics community to target and address relevant issues for such a course, a survey was sent to over 400 members of the American Physical Society's Forum on Physics and Society and other physicists who may have an interest in this area. The sample population was intentionally biased in this way to try to obtain a better response rate. The key questions asked were, What, if any, course should be taught? and What issues should be addressed? Two subgroups of the targeted population -- physicists in academia and physicists in industry and government labs -- were sent two different surveys. Results are discussed below. Unless otherwise noted, all respondents not affiliated with academia are combined under the generic heading of "industry".
Wylo, Bonnie and Thomsen, Marshall, "Should Physics Students Take a Course in Ethics? Physicists Respond" (1996). Ethics in Science and Engineering National Clearinghouse. Paper 398.
Acknowledgement and Disclaimer
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. SBR-9511817. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The texts of the workshop talks have been prepared by the speakers themselves. The other material has been prepared by the editors based on discussions during the workshop and feedback from those who have read earlier drafts. While every effort has been made to accurately reflect the facts and opinions supplied by these contributors, the editors take full responsibility for any inaccuracies.