Teaching Social Justice and Social Responsibility in Science

Morgan Thompson, Ben Morris and Jon Beckwith

What is education like in the United States for college and graduate school students pursuing scientific careers?  In many respects, it is a superb education that ensures a future workforce of scientists who can be imaginative, innovative and creative.  Young scientists learn how to be both technically and theoretically critical of their own work and that of others.  These aspects of their education and the massive amount of government funding for science are largely responsible for the major role U.S. scientists have played in scientific advances in the last 50 years or so.

However, there are aspects of what prospective researchers learn that prevent them from becoming the whole scientists that society needs.  They learn that science is an objective pursuit, uncontaminated by social influences.  They learn an ivory tower perspective in which the social impacts of their accomplishments are not their concern.  Perhaps what they do not learn is even more important.  They learn nothing of contemporary perspectives in the history and philosophy of science, which challenge the notion of objectivity.  They learn nothing of examples from the history of science in which social biases have so contaminated scientific research as to lead to significant social harm.  They know of none of the tragic examples of scientists’ work that was subsequently misused in socially or militarily oppressive ways.  Because of the myths and gaps in scientific education, scientists are unprepared when confronted with a particularly egregious application or misuse of either their own science or that of others.  Nor do they have a strong sense of responsibility for the problematic uses of their own or others’ work that could cause social harm.  The principles of being a scientist that students learn, either by omission or commission, lead to a group of scientists that historian of science Jennet Conant referred to as a “docile lot” in the face of destructive applications of science.1

An historical example of this docility is reflected in the attitude of Thomas Hunt Morgan who was arguably the leading researcher in genetics during the field’s infancy at the beginning of the 20th century.  When confronted at that time with the growing social impact of the U.S. eugenics movement, much of it fueled by genetic arguments, Morgan abstained from public commentary for many years despite his disdain for the scientific arguments used in eugenics literature.  In a private letter to Charles Davenport, Morgan stated, “I have no desire to make any fuss.”  By the time Morgan  did decide to speak out, the eugenics movement had accomplished most of its goals.2

These concerns about the education of scientists lead us to recommend that students be exposed to the work of historians, philosophers, ethicists, sociologists, and the relatively few practicing scientists who have been active in dealing with societal implications of science. While these topics are currently largely absent from scientists’ formal education, our experience suggests that many science students actively seek out and enjoy opportunities for this training when they are made available.  One of us has taught a course to trainees in science that embodies our recommendation and was initiated at the prompting of two graduate students who recruited faculty support and guidance to make the course a reality.

The “Social Issues in Biology” course has been offered annually since the mid-1980s at Harvard University. The format is a small reading and discussion-based seminar with a maximum of twenty undergraduate and graduate students. Topics include history and philosophy of science, evolution versus creationism, genetics and race, women and science, genetic testing, journalism and communication of science to the public, genetics and criminality, science in wartime, scientist-activists and social responsibility. Popular with students, the course has resulted in multiple teaching awards for its lead faculty member, Dr. Jon Beckwith.

This spring, the course began a more explicit, imbedded dialog about communication of science through the arts, by allowing students to participate in the genesis of a collaborative, multimedia, devised theater production, called “The Edge of the Map.” Calla Videt, a professional writer and director of the Sightline theater company in New York, was recruited to develop the experimental theater production with the input of course students and faculty. Virtual planning began in the fall and culminated in a five-week spring residency during which time Videt and a teaching assistant led the students in art-making activities to produce written text, video or audio recordings, drawing, painting, photography, etc. These materials were then publicly exhibited in conjunction with the final production. Students also participated in interactive rehearsals. The result of this process was that “The Edge of the Map” focused on genetics via interweaving four stories that tackled questions about what genetics can and cannot tell us about identity using present day and near-future innovations in genetic testing and engineering. The course and performance also incorporated a social media Twitter campaign to engage audiences before and after the performance with important questions about the social implications of science.

It is our belief that courses incorporating substantial interdisciplinary learning – such as the model we describe here – are essential to the cultivation of socially conscious scientists who are capable of navigating the complexity of interplay between science and society. The depth of consciousness-raising that we hope to achieve extends beyond the ethics workshops that are mandated for graduate students and postdoctoral fellowships at institutions with government-funded biomedical research, which can vary greatly in quality. The recent efforts of the National Institutes of Health Office of Research Integrity to expand the scope of Responsible Conduct of Research teaching to include discussions of “the scientist as a responsible member of society, contemporary ethical issues in biomedical research, and the environmental and societal impacts of research” (reference 3) are an improvement.3 However, as scientist activists we feel that a more explicit commitment to teaching science and social justice is needed now. To reach more people with this perspective, a new collaboration called the Science and Social Justice Project has been initiated by a joint effort of faculty at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College and at Harvard Medical School. Together, we are building a web resource that will include a repository of course curricula and activities related to science and social justice and will gather a community of activist scholars with the goal of making this training an explicit part of higher education science teaching and research.


1. J. Conant. Last of the outspoken scientists.  Boston Globe, April 28, 2005.

2.  G. Allen. Genetics, eugenics and class struggle. Genetics 79:29-45 (1975).

3.  Office of Research Integrity, Responsible Conduct of Research Instruction Components (2009)