What Kind of Research Should Our Government Support?



A revised version of a classroom lesson initially authored by the following Long Island, NY science teachers:

Vincent Calabrese, Daniel M. Leccese and Rosemary McPartland, Glen Cove High School, Glen Cove

Michael Foley, Miller Place High School, Miller Place

Jennifer Visconti, Northport High School, Northport

Courses for Which the Lesson is Intended:

Intended as an introductory lesson, which can be adapted for use in any high school science course. As presented here, the research topics come from a variety of science disciplines. A teacher of a particular science course may choose instead to drop some of the topics and add others in order to make more - or perhaps all of them - specifically relevant to the subject matter of the course.

Types of Teaching/Learning Activities Employed in this Lesson:

Students are given a homework assignment requiring them to read descriptions of research proposals and to rate the proposals on the basis of a set of specific criteria. In class students are assigned to research review groups, which have to decide which of the proposals to fund. The teacher then leads a discussion focusing on the ethical issues raised in the reasons given for each group's decisions.

Category that Best Describes this Lesson:

Social Issues.

Ethics/Values Issues Raised by this Lesson:

General ethical issues associated with public funding of research include: Does publicly funded research need to promise material social benefits?; How can value be assigned to benefits in order to compare it to costs?; Should research be supported if it does not promise equal benefits to all members of society? Other ethical issues will depend on the specific nature of the research projects considered. Issues raised by projects described in the lesson as written include: What restrictions should there be on research involving human or animal subjects?; To what extent should environmental issues be considered in making funding decisions?; Should decisions on funding be based only on the opinions of the majority of scientists?; Should research be funded that could result in violating the civil rights of some group of individuals?

Lesson Plan
1. In preparation for the lesson the students are given a homework assignment requiring them to read brief descriptions of 12 research proposals, rate each one on the basis of a set of specific criteria and write reasons why they would or would not approve funding the proposal.

2. The class is divided into five "research evaluation panels." These panels are supposed to be advising a government agency that provides funds to support general scientific research. The agency has only enough funds to support eight of the research projects. Each evaluation panel is to use the ratings of the research projects by its members to produce a list of the eight projects it recommends supporting. Each panel should write down the reasons it chose to include or exclude each project from its list.

3. The teacher reads the selections of the five panels to the class and then leads a discussion focusing on the ethical principles that are reflected in the reasons that the panels have presented. (If this is the first lesson on ethics in science, the discussion should be preceded by a brief introduction to the subject of ethical reasoning. In this case at least 1? class periods should be devoted to this lesson.)

Homework Assignment

Pretend that you are a scientist who has been selected to advise a government agency that provides funds to support scientific research. You have been sent the following brief abstracts of 15 proposed research projects that have been submitted to the agency. Read the abstracts carefully and then rank each one on a scale of 1 to 10 -- where 10 is the highest possible score -- with respect to the listed criteria. Finally write reasons why you would or would not fund each of the proposals


a) Extent to which you think the research is important.

b) Extent to which the research may result in public benefit or harm.

c) Extent to which the research is necessary for the advancement of science.

d) Extent to which the research is likely to improve the country's economy.

e) Ways in which the research is likely to affect the environment.

f) Whether or not it is important for the government to support this research.

g) Whether or not the likely results justify the cost.

I would (would not) fund this research project because .......




1. Development of High Energy Rocket Fuel For Mission to Mars

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has proposed sending a series of manned rocket ships to Mars in order to establish a permanent space colony there within the next decade. This proposed research would examine the combustion properties of a newly discovered group of high energy chemicals that can be made from coal and other plentiful raw materials. The goal would be a more energetic rocket fuel that would allow the Mars spaceships to carry a larger payload

2. New Artificial Kidney

A new type of plastic shows promise of being used as a thin film in an artificial kidney that can filter and cleanse blood just as effectively as a real kidney. This proposed research would test the ability of this plastic film to filter all of the poisons out of human blood that are filtered out by a real kidney. Human volunteers who are waiting for kidney transplants will be used in this research. The plastic material is extremely expensive so, if the research is successful, the artificial kidneys will cost more than a kidney transplant, but those that can afford them won't have to wait for the availability of kidneys that matches their blood types

3. Use of Organ Transplants From Death Row Inmates

The ability to save and prolong human lives by transplanting organs has created an increasing shortage of available organs. A potential sources of such organs is death row inmates. This research would explore the potential for reducing the waiting time for human organs if the organs of those who are condemned to death were automatically available upon execution without requiring permission of the condemned person or next of kin.

4. Genetically Engineered Tobacco

A variety of tobacco has been developed by selective breeding techniques that has only half the nicotine and tar of the average tobacco plant. This new variety is very expensive to grow because it is not as resistant as other varieties of tobacco to several insect pests. This research is designed to perfect a technique of incorporating into the new low nicotine and tar variety the gene that makes other varieties resistant.

5. Migratory Behavior Of the Humpbacked Whale

Efforts to protect the humpbacked whale from pollution and from its predators has been made difficult by the fact that not enough is known about this species migratory behavior. This proposed research will use a small electronic device that can be attached to the whales' back with no ill effects to track the whales as they move between their Summer and Winter feeding areas and to determine where they go to mate and raise their young.

6. Protecting a Government DNA Data Bank

A small sample of blood or loose skin from any human being can be used to obtain a DNA "fingerprint" that is a virtually infallible way of identifying that individually from a future sample obtained from that same person. The government would be able to use a computer data bank of stored DNA information from all U.S. residents for many purposes such as tracking down criminal suspects, identifying missing persons, positively identifying people for income tax and social security purposes, etc. One problem with the scheme is that the data bank would need to be available only to those authorized by the government to use it. This research is aimed at finding ways of protecting such a data bank from access by unauthorized computer hackers.

7. Testing An Experimental AIDS Drug On Rhesus Monkeys

A potentially highly effective new drugs for the treating AIDS patients has been developed. There is concern however that this drug may have several severe side effects in humans that would not occur in the usual laboratory animals like mice and rats in which it has been already tested. Before it is tested on humans this research proposes to test it on Rhesus monkeys. These monkeys, although rare and expensive have been used in research in the past because they are often very similar to humans in their toxic responses to drugs.

8. Effects of Eating Fast Foods On Health

Fatty, high cholesterol, foods have been blamed by health scientists for increasing obesity and susceptibility to heart disease in the public. Scientists who disagree with this assertion propose to provide food from McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC and other fast food restaurants to elementary school children in ten low income neighborhoods in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. By following the health of these children over the following twenty years they hope to disprove the allegation that fast foods cause poor health.

9. Development of Disposable Business Clothing

One of the inconveniences for frequent business travelers is the need to constantly pack and unpack clothing. Textile scientists have proposed testing the use of a very cheap new fabric that they think can be adapted to the production of shirts, suits, underwear, dresses and virtually every other essential item of clothing. Their goal is to demonstrate that such clothing can be produced in such a cheap manner that a business traveler could simply purchase new clothes at his or her destination and throw them out when the trip is over.

10. Research On Differences In Mathematical Ability Between Asians and Afro-Americans

In the U.S. Asians tend to do better than average and Afro-American do worse than average in courses in mathematics in grade school and college. Among professions that require mathematics, there tend to be more Asians and fewer Afro-Americans than there are in the general population. The intent of this proposed research is to determine whether these differences are due to inherited, genetic differences between Asians and Afro-Americans or to social factors.

11. Scientific Validity of Astrological Predictions

Most scientists reject astrology as one of many forms of superstitions and mysticism that has no true predictive or interpretive value. An organization of scientists who believe in astrology proposes to do a scientific study to demonstrate its validity. They intend to test the ability of astrological predictions, based on the positions in the sky of the sun, moon, stars and planets to predict which days are most favorable for a person to buy a lottery ticket.

12. Looking For Life Elsewhere In the Universe

Although the possible existence of life on a planet circling a distant star is unlikely to have direct impact on life on Earth, scientists, as well as the general public continues to show interest in looking for signs of such life. An astrophysicist has developed a new mathematical theory on how to examine the numerous radiowave signals that arrive from space in order to determine whether they may have been produced by intelligent life. She seeks funding for the development and use of computer programs to test her theory.


Since scientists require funding for almost all the work they do, the fact that ethics and values questions play an important role in determining what research will receive funding is all the evidence needed to demonstrate a strong link between science and ethics.

The teacher may have to intervene to make sure that the discussion of the panels' selections focuses on the ethical principles connected to the reasoning presented. Some students may prefer to debate the technical merits or defects in the various proposals. The proposals presented here (and presumably alternate proposals created by teachers using this lesson) were included because they raise one or more ethics or values issue rather than because of their unique technical merits. Thus, the proposed ambitious mission to mars raises questions about the ethics of supporting a very expensive research project that appears to have little direct relevance to any of our many Earthly problems; the artificial kidney proposal raises issues about supporting research that will produce results that are only beneficial to affluent members of society; etc.

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