ETHICS CASE: Who gets the science fellowship?

An alumnus of the school has just donated a modest endowment for funding a fellowship "to promote better science." Four students have applied for the first year's award. All have demonstrated interest in science through summer science classes, volunteering in labs and at museums, etc. But the academic standing of the applicants varies widely. One boy has excelled in all his science classes, has impressed every teacher and has the highest GPA, SAT and ACH scores; he is thinking of medical school and being a doctor like his father. Another has shown aptitude just in physics; his research project won this year's regional science fair. A third has done only reasonably well in science, but is a exceptionally skilled writer and is planning to be a science journalist. There is only one girl applicant; she has done average (not remarkable) work, but she continues to express a strong enthusiasm for geological field work. The committee's responsibility in selecting a student is, as expressed by the benefactor, "to promote better science": who should be given the fellowship?
DISCUSSION. The choice here involves ethics because the committee is hoping to treat all applicants fairly or justly and to make principled value judgments. The case exemplifies well how ethics intersects with science as an institution. The problem may be typical in that the students each have different strengths and reasons for receiving the fellowship, and hence are not easily compared with one another on a single scale.

The scenario is especially challenging because it calls upon students to examine critically common assumptions about our standards of what is "best." Here, academic criteria alone may not suffice. Interest in science will affect whether or not the fellowship is ultimately used productively. In this case, all four students have demonstrated sufficient interest.

Much of the decision hinges on how one characterizes "better science." The position of the prospective journalist asks us to consider whether public understanding and promotion of science is indeed part of science. If stronger public support means more funding for research, is that not "better" science? The potential physician allows us to ask whether the practice of medicine, so linked in our minds with biology, is itself "science." If it does not involve research, one might well say "no." Many M.D.s would argue that theirs is a service profession, not a scientific one (though it is based on scientific knowledge).

The case also raises the question of equity of men and women in science. Women are currently underrepresented in science except in a few fields (mostly biological and behavioral). Is science with fewer women worse off? If so, then selecting a girl for the fellowship would promote "better" science. One may draw on examples from the articles in this issue to show that claims for equity have substantial merit, based on fairness, eliminating sex bias and broadening our conception of knowledge.

This case also provides an occasion to introduce students to the notion of `restitutive justice'--that is, restoring fairness by correcting for past injustices. One may ask in this or similar cases whether the girl's academic achievement can be assessed on the same scale as the boys'--and thus whether she has a fair chance on that basis. If society or the educational system has discriminated against females in science (and there is strong evidence that it has), then her abilities will not have been given equal opportunity to grow or express themselves. The girl may, in fact, have equivalent or stronger(!) potential, though her actual achievement to date hides it. To not recognize her socially induced "handicap" would be to merely compound the original injustice. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, in a case where all individuals have not had equal access to opportunities in the past, "equal opportunity" in the present is not enough to ensure fairness. One must restore or accommodate past injustice, even at the apparent "cost" to others (who, in fact, have benefitted from those past disparities).

One solution would be to recognize that science will be best promoted by more women in the field. This is a fine example for restitutive justice because it is hard to argue that the boys' future achievements will be diminished measurably by not receiving the fellowship, though they may not receive this one extra opportunity. Conversely, it could make a substantial difference in helping a marginal female student become a productive scientist. Because she has expressed adequate enthusiasm, she need not be the "best" academically: the committee can consider giving her the fellowship a "good investment" in better science.

The SHiPS Teachers' Network helps teachers share experiences and resources for integrating history, philosophy and sociology of science in the the science classroom.