Let’s Get Ethical

by Sofia Reynoso

Recently, I watched a documentary series called Unnatural Selection on Netflix. The show details how an emerging field of genetic engineering has caused a stir not only in the scientific community but among the general public as well. Concepts like “gene drive” and “biohacking” irked me for days after binge-watching the show, so I dove into the McGill eCalendar to find a class on bioethics, but to no avail. If this show had shaken me, finding not many options for my newfound interest shocked me even more. How was it that the future scientists of the world were not required to have an understanding of the ethical implications of their work?

Just this past December, the scientist responsible for editing the genome of twins using CRISPR for a study on HIV was sentenced to three years in prison. (1) The embryos of these twin girls were genetically modified to prevent HIV from being passed on from the HIV+ father. When he presented his work in 2018, he was met with outrage from scientists around the world. (2) Jennifer Doudna, a co-inventor of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, cited the implications of a non peer-reviewed report by the scientist in question. (3) She also stated, “It’s very disturbing. It’s inappropriate. It goes against all of the guidelines that were established by the National Academy of Science’s report from 2017, and I think there’s just no way to defend it.” (4)

In addition, the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment is a classic example of how bias contributed to an obviously unethical study when African American subjects were misinformed regarding their treatment for syphilis, leading to a lack of consent. The study was conducted over 40 years. Following public outrage, the subjects and their families reached a $10 million settlement in 1974. (5)

Biology is not the only field subject to such scandals. In high school history classes, often students engage in debates surrounding the events that transpired in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. This is not just a debate of history. The development of the atomic bomb would not have been possible without advancements in physics and chemistry. Had the Manhattan Project not existed, the world would be drastically different. So was it ethical for scientists to develop the atomic bomb or other weapons of mass destruction?

While it may seem that McGill is somewhat detached from debates like these, in 2016, Dr. Alain Brunet, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, developed a treatment plan for those who experienced heartbreak using a pill originally intended for those suffering from PTSD. (6) The groundbreaking work showed tremendous success but also begs the question: how far is too far?

Last semester, my friends in engineering mentioned a course they’re required to take called FACC 100 (Intro to Engineering Profession). When asked to explain the course description, one of my friends said, “I don’t know, ethics and stuff.” One assignment for the class posed an ethical question for the students and required them to write how they would grapple with the proposed situation. And while some may complain about the course, I longed for something similar in my Biology program. 

Although some ethics-related classes are available to science students, I still struggle to grasp why engineering students are required to discuss the ethical qualms of their future work, while science students are not. 

One of MSURJ’s goals is to encourage undergraduate students to engage in research on campus. Part of being a researcher is comprehending the impact of one’s work. McGill should encourage students to participate in ethical scientific research. If McGill wishes to raise the world’s best scientists, science students should be required to take an ethics course.

Even though the Faculty of Science does not require students to complete an ethics course, you can still search for one that may interest you. Here is a list with some options for science ethics courses:

Courses with a focus on ethics:

  • NSCI 300
  • PHIL 343
  • PHIL 341
  • ENVR 203
  • ENVR 400

Courses with portion of class dedicated to ethics:

  • PHGY 488 
  • EXSU 500 
  • BMDE 505
  • PHAR 508
  • BASC 201
  • HGEN 400
  • BIEN 200
  • BIEN 330
  • PHGY 351

*Note: Some courses listed may be restricted to you; make sure to check out the McGill eCalendar to confirm. In addition, some classes are in faculties other than science.

If you are a science student, be aware of this gap in our learning. McGill affords us an incredible education and opportunity to learn; in this case, we just have to seek it out. 

 

References:

  1. https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/30/china/gene-scientist-china-intl-hnk/index.html
  2. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/11/crispr-bombshell-chinese-researcher-claims-have-created-gene-edited-twins
  3. https://news.berkeley.edu/2018/11/26/doudna-responds-to-claim-of-first-crispr-edited-babies/
  4. https://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2018/11/28/news-stream-stout-doudna-crispr-chinese-scientist-babies.cnn
  5. https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm
  6. https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/montreal-research-broken-heart-there-might-be-a-pill-for-you

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