Ethics in Science and Technology International Dimensions of Ethics and Science and Engineering Science TEchnology and Society Initiative UMass Amherst

IDEESE Online Ethics Cases for Science and Engineering Students

International Dimensions of Ethics for Engineering and Science Education (IDEESE) is an NSF-funded project at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The project develops on-line and classroom-based curriculum for science and engineering disciplines. This is the home page for the interactive on-line curriculum, a set of cases and related resources based on real events with international ethical dimensions. Some cases (listed below) include audio interviews with fictitious stakeholders showing different perspectives on the case. The resources listed below include guidelines for structuring online student discussion forums and activities, and "driving questions" for homework and/or discussion. To see the full set of curriculum materials visit the IDEESE Home page. This page can be accessed by students but is intended as the instructor's overview of our materials.


Links to the Online Cases:

Key: R= Includes case resources; L=Link to additional in-depth classroom resources; I=includes fictional interviewees; A=includes audio interviews with fictional interviewees; Q=includes sample discussion questions]


Dhopal - The Dhopal Chemical Disaster

This case is a fictionalized version of the Bhopal India chemical plant accident of 1984, which raised questions about plant safety and corporate responsibility around the world. In the actual case—one of the highest-casualty industrial accidents of the 20th century—a nighttime leak of some 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas, mixed with unkown other gases, occurred at a chemical plant owned and operated by a partly-owned subsidiary of the U.S.-based Union Carbide Corporation. At least 2000 people died and 300,000 suffered respiratory and other injuries of varying severity. The plant had been operating at a loss for some time, the parent company had begun pulling resources out, and working conditions and morale were low. Controversy still exists as to what happened and how to assign responsibility for the disaster. Victims were compensated after a series of lawsuits, but some assert that compensation was inadequate and that those responsible were never brought to justice. Our fictionalized version of the case tells the story from various perspectives and encourages students to consider how the types of dilemmas in which engineers, technicians, and managers found themselves have relevance to other, less dramatic, workplace contexts. The case illustrates, among other ethics topics, how various economic and political pressures from corporate, state, local, and international bodies, combined with inadequate oversight mechanisms, can lead to disaster.

(Additional in-depth materials available here.)
SARS - Reporting controversy over the SARS virus outbreak

Between the months of November 2002 and July 2003 there was a global scale pandemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Within a matter of weeks SARS spread from the Guangdong province of China to rapidly infect individuals in some 37 countries around the world. Worldwide, there were 8,096 known cases and 774 deaths listed by the World Health Organization (WHO). Controversy erupted when it was discovered that Chinese scientists and engineers, under constraints imposed explicitly or implicitly by the Chinese government, did not at first report information about the possible epidemic to WHO authorities.  In the spring of 2003, the Chinese began providing more information to WHO and subsequently revised their policies for dealing with large scale outbreaks of infectious diseases. In exploring the perspective of various stakeholders and why they made certain decisions at various stages, this case illustrates how differences in cultural norms can lead to unexpected consequences. As WHO policies were improved as a result of this pandemic, the case also illustrates how international bodies respond and adapt to real and potential global crises.

(Additional in-depth materials available here.)
GMOs - The EU-US Dispute over Regulation of Genetically Modified Organisms and Foods

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the form of plants, animal feeds, and human foods, inspire heated debate because they involve both high knowledge uncertainty and high ethical concern. Concerns for the integrity and sustainability of the natural environment and as well as the social and economic consequences of allowing the supply of seeds or breeding stock to be controlled by large multinational corporations dominated the debate. This case focuses on the differences between how the United States and the European Union have responded to public opinion, scientific evidence, and industry pressures in creating regulations. In its policy decisions the EU relies very heavily on the "precautionary principle" which mandates avoiding a new activity or technology while its long-term consequences remain unknown. The US, on the other hand, does not rely as extensively on the precautionary principle; most policy decisions are guided by the rule that a new activity may proceed until it is shown to cause significant harm. The controversy was eventually taken to the World Trade Organization for resolution. This case illustrates the origins and consequences of regulatory policies diverging between different countries. It also illustrates the tensions in responding to diverse and strong opinions among citizens, scientists, and business interests when conclusive research results are not available.

(Additional in-depth materials available here.)
Cyber Censor - Citizen Privacy and Government-Mandated Cyber-Censoring

In mid-2009 the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology of the People’s Republic of China publicly released a directive stating that beginning July 1, 2009 all computers sold in China would be required to include Green Dam Youth Escort software, an internet filtering program that, according to the government, is intended to prevent children from viewing violent and pornographic web sites. There was immediate international concern that the software could be used by the government to monitor and restrict all citizen internet use, including politically-sensitive material, and there is even suspicion that the software can be used to intrude on individuals' privacy and autonomy in other ways. The Chinese government postponed the deadline, and the outcomes of the case are still unknown (as of Fall 2009). Computer software and hardware companies and western governmental regulatory bodies are positioning themselves in different ways, as they balance their desire to uphold western ethical values of privacy and freedom, their aversion to a public relations backlash, and the significant current and future market share that China represents. In the “discussion topics” section of this case, we ask students to imagine themselves as software engineers who are working on small modules of a larger product. We then ask them to imagine their potential courses of action upon realizing that the codes they are working on could be misused for unlawful or unethical ends (especially if their supervisors instructed them to continue the work without thinking of the bigger picture).

Stem Cells - Recruitment of Egg Donors by South Korean Stem Cell Researchers.

This case is a somewhat fictionalized exploration of the controversy surrounding a South Korean research scientist's recruitment of egg donors for his team's stem cell research from 2002 through 2005. The research team, after gaining fame for scientific advances in the field, later came under international scrutiny for alleged violation of ethics standards by paying and/or coercing volunteer egg donors.

(Additional in-depth materials available here.)

Questions or comments? Contacts:

Use/Reuse: Instructors are free to download and modify these materials and HTML files for their own use, provided credit and a URL link to this page is given for "IDEESE project for Online Ethics Cases for Science and Engineering Students, University of Massachusetts Amherst"

Funding for the International Dimensions of Ethics Education in Science and Engineering Project comes from the National Science Foundation through grant number 0734887. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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