Bioethics Resources for Biotech Teachers

There’s a lot packed into each of our experiments. Our hands-on learning approach is integrative and engaging but also demanding! Each experiment challenges students on several fronts. They’re asked to understand the biology behind a certain test or technology, learn key contextual information such as the molecular structure of DNA or the epidemiology of a virus, perform a new procedure, and critically analyze the results. Given all this, adding a bioethics discussion into the mix can seem like a very tall order!

What is bioethics? Bioethics is the study of the ethical issues emerging from advances in biology and medicine and from the research that enables these advances. 
Why is it important to teach? Bioethics questions are not just for expert “bioethicists” to answer. These questions come up while planning and conducting research in a lab, treating and advising patients, making funding decisions, passing new health policies, and even while casually discussing new technologies. Consequently, it’s both useful and advisable for doctors, patients, scientists, politicians, journalists, students and the general public to all be familiar with the subject and able to use some of its tools.  

The biotech lab can be a powerful place for bioethics discussions! Biotech experiments put key science concepts into a vivid, real-world context which naturally opens the door to asking bioethical questions. In addition, student groups who have successfully tackled a new experiment often feel more than ready to have a thought-provoking and respectful dialog even about a difficult subject. Finally, there are all those incubation times to consider how society could best use (or could potentially misuse) new biotech innovations.

With many schools still relying on distance or hybrid learning, the recent appointment of a leading bioethicist to help head direct the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and a whirlwind of biology-related social and policy questions dominating current events, 2021 may be the year to take the leap and add a bioethics exercise to one of your labs.

Wondering where to start? Here are seven excellent online resources. 

The NIH site’s Teaching Exploring Bioethics is an excellent first stop. It introduces the field, outlines how bioethics differs from and complements scientific investigations, outlines four key questions to ask when thinking like a bioethicist, and provides a list of tips for conducting ethics discussions. The accompanying 6 module curriculum, Exploring Bioethics, is both thorough and nuanced and ideal for the high school classroom. It outlines 18 days of classroom exercises but many of these exercises can be done independently.

Another great curriculum is the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research’s Bioethics 101. While published back in 2012, many of the topics remain relevant. Case in point, in their first lesson students learn to distinguish between ethical, legal, and scientific questions by walking through the challenges that arise when a hypothetical vaccine becomes scarce during a flu outbreak!

The Hasting Center is an interdisciplinary research institute focused on addressing social and ethical issues in health care, science, and technology. Their blog, The Hasting Bioethics Forum, is amazing, with hundreds of short but thorough bioethics essays on a huge range of topics. It’s a great place to go for discussion topics and inspiration! Read the most recent post or scroll down to the bottom to filter by a specific subject. Another good blog for current issues is Michigan State University’s Bioethics in the News.

Many universities and high schools now provide guides for classroom conversations about controversial topics. For a quick-read, check out the Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center’s Guide (1 page). Or, if you want a source that answers all your questions, check out the handbook Start Talking which is available free from the University of Alaska (294 pages, but easily searchable).

Biotech and bioethics have many overlaps and teaching them together can have a strong synergistic effect. So finally keep checking this blog as we explore bioethics in the context of our specific experiments! And let us know which experiments you’d most like to see examined.