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Raising Scientific Experts

Competing interests threaten the scientific record, but courage and sound judgment can help

Nancy L. Jones

Teaching Professionalism

More than ever before, acquiring technical skills does not assure success as a scientist. Survival depends on operating with finesse, using what are often called soft skills. Of course scientific communities have an obligation to train their future scientists in the conceptual and methodological tools for conducting research. But they must also train students to function within the scientific culture, based on a thorough understanding of the norms, standards and best practices in the student’s specific discipline.

At WFUSM, several of my colleagues and I pioneered a curriculum to promote professionalism and social responsibility within science. Our goal was to equip our students with the tools to navigate the challenging research culture with high integrity. These included soft skills such as the ability to recognize ethical issues within the practice of science, solve problems, work in groups, articulate and defend one’s professional judgment and critique the judgment of one’s peers. We also wanted to develop within each student an identity as a scientific professional, acculturated to the standards of the discipline through open communication with peers and role models.

To work toward these goals, we chose a problem-based learning format, to which my colleagues later added some didactic lectures. Problem-based learning is structured around authentic, engaging case studies and requires that students gain new knowledge to solve problems in the cases. After a scenario is introduced in one class session, students seek out relevant information on their own, then apply that knowledge to the case during the next class session. Students work actively in groups, with guidance from facilitators (faculty and postdoctoral fellows) who serve as cognitive coaches rather than content experts.

In our curriculum, the scenarios were designed to provide a realistic understanding of the practice of science and to prompt discussion of the norms and best practices within the profession. They also required students to identify ways that the various stakeholders—principal investigators, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, technicians, peer reviewers and others—could manage their competing interests. We constructed activities and discussion questions so that different cases stressed distinct types of moral reflection. For example, we introduced two moral-reasoning tools, each one a set of questions that students could use to systematically sift through the principles, values and consequences in the cases. (Questions included, for instance, “What are the issues or points in conflict?” and “Can I explain openly to the public, my superiors or my peers my reasons for acting as I propose?”) Some sessions focused on moral character and competence by requiring students to solve problems and defend their decisions. Others called for students to take the perspective of a professional scientist, thereby building a sense of moral motivation and commitment. Finally, some cases cultivated moral sensitivity by presenting the perspectives of multiple stakeholders and promoting awareness of legal, institutional and societal concerns. Facilitators gave students feedback on their reasoning, moral reflection, group skills and ability to analyze problems. During a debriefing activity at the end of each case, students identified which concrete learning objectives they had accomplished. They also discussed how they were functioning as a group and what they could do to improve their team dynamic.

The curriculum addressed a range of issues in ethics and professionalism, among which peer review and authorship were important themes. Cases on scientific authorship required students to investigate, between class meetings, the criteria by which their own laboratory groups, departments, institution and professional networks assigned authorship credit. Back in class, each small group collectively assembled a standard operating procedure for assigning credit, and applied it to resolve the authorship problem in the scenario. Cases on peer review called attention to the various roles of the author, the reviewer and the editor in evaluating a manuscript. Students identified essential elements of a well-done review, the greatest ethical risks for a reviewer and strategies to mitigate those risks. Students then applied this information in their discussions of a case study in which an up-and-coming researcher was asked to review grant proposals that could influence her own research or affect a friend’s career.

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