John Dallard ’22 had “heard about the deaths and racial incidents with law enforcement, not just this year, but [in] so many previous years, too.” This time, however, was different.
As a Computer Science major and the vice president of Yale’s National Society of Black Engineers, Dallard has long thought about the consequences of the technology he works with and the impact it will have on others. But this year’s COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests against systemic racism have prompted Dallard to reexamine the intersections between ethics and STEM.
“This year, being at home, being stuck in quarantine, there’s not much else to focus on except the state of the world,” Dallard reflected in an interview with The Politic. “It has made me really think, ‘how do I want to go about my career and goals with my education? How can I use my Computer Science degree and knowledge to truly effect change?’”
It is a common perception that science and politics exist as dichotomous entities. But 2020 has shown that it is impossible to separate COVID-19 from Black Lives Matter or the election from vaccines. Science informs political actions, and politics influence which scientific developments are prioritized.
As America looks to technology to ameliorate the effects of the pandemic, coronavirus disparities across marginalized groups have underscored the need for racial justice-oriented perspectives in science and tech. Black, Hispanic, and Native American communities have been disproportionately burdened not only with COVID-19 cases and deaths, but also limited access to digital resources. Contact-tracing apps, designed for people who can afford to separate themselves from work and community, have ultimately presented surveillance pitfalls and caused tangential harms to marginalized communities. False-positives pose the most harm to lower-income workers who are forced to weigh losing their income or job against their health and safety based on inaccurate warnings. These apps have also raised concerns that they normalize surveillance, which has commonly been applied to marginalized communities, and that sensitive health and social networking data collected could be reused later for different purposes.
The tensions and interplay between ethics and science are entrenched in Yale’s classrooms as well. In light of increasing discourse surrounding the importance of anti-racism training across all sectors, is Yale doing enough to ensure that its future doctors and engineers are equipped to serve all people equally? For some STEM majors, the answer is no.
Like Dallard, Jordan* ’21 has also spent a lot of time considering the implications of her work as a Computer Science major and the ameliorative or detrimental impact her work could have. However, she doesn’t feel that her major classes adequately address this social impact.
“Yale does not accomplish this sentiment of urgency and high level of responsibility when it comes to innovation and technology use,” she wrote in an email to The Politic. “In fact, it’s kind of hard to remember specific instances warning of negative impact coming from professors, other than as quick side-notes or waved-off comments.”
Dallard conveyed the same sentiment: “We won’t be in a blackbox, turning in assignments and submitting homework to simply be graded. We will potentially affect a lot of people, and that’s nowhere to be found in our courses for a Computer Science degree.”
Not having the human implications of their work actively and vigorously discussed in core classes means that STEM students who don’t actively choose an ethics elective or distributional requirement might never consider these moral questions during the course of their Yale education.
Karen Tai ’21, who majors in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry (MB&B), came to Yale convinced that she wanted to go to medical school and that she would focus solely on STEM. She channeled her previous research experience into conducting cancer research at Yale and started volunteering at HAVEN Free Clinic, a student-run clinic that provides access to free health care for the New Haven community. It was those Saturday mornings seeing patients that ignited her interest in understanding the individuals that she works with.
“At the end of the day we’re not serving robots,” Tai insists. “We’re serving people with complex histories, who have histories of distrust for the medical system.”
Many of the people she encounters have had to contend with systemic poverty and medical racism, which complicate their access to care. “Most of my patients don’t even have access to insulin shots or even health insurance; the idea of [a] novel treatment for cancer is not even in their mindset. They are more struggling to pay their medical bills or thinking about how they’re going to get food, how they’re going to pay for their housing.”
Tai’s interactions with HAVEN’s clients have led her to question who the $200,000 cancer treatments she helps develop a few buildings over will ultimately serve.
“I love the research I’m doing and I do believe it will potentially help individuals and cancer patients, but it was really hard for me to justify my focus and continuous research on creating these therapies when this potential was not even going to be available to people I considered family and friends,” Tai explained.
Volunteering at HAVEN Free Clinic catalyzed Tai’s interest in History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health (HSHM) courses and learning more about societal elements of the medical profession.
Yale prides itself on offering students a liberal arts education meant to ensure they are exposed to different disciplines. Yet without actively searching for volunteering opportunities and reflecting on class disparities in healthcare, Tai fears she would never have become invested in taking HSHM courses and gaining a more holistic understanding of medicine.
Other universities have chosen to set more specific graduation requirements. To acknowledge the centrality of ethics in STEM, some of Yale’s peer institutions, like Stanford, have integrated ethics requirements into their STEM majors.
Every undergraduate Computer Science major at Stanford must take one of 23 ‘Technology in Society” (TiS) courses that focus “on ethical issues arising from the interplay of engineering, technology and society,” according to Stanford’s undergraduate handbook.
As Dev Iyer ’24, a Computer Science major at Stanford, told The Politic, “I think it’s good we have this major requirement because it’s important and I honestly probably wouldn’t have chosen a TiS class otherwise.”
Iyer explained the difficult trade-off STEM students face between choosing classes that teach them technical skills and those that do not seem as directly relevant to their intended careers. “I know ethics is important, but I’m surrounded by so many exciting technical classes and so little time to take them all. There’s a sort of opportunity cost to taking any class.”
This “opportunity cost” that STEM students feel when choosing between STEM and humanities classes is exactly what Rob Reich, professor of Political Science at Stanford, believes that universities should help minimize. He helped develop a new Computer Science course, CS182: Ethics, Public Policy, and Technological Change, which enrolled approximately 250 undergraduates when it was first launched in 2018. The next year, the course enrolled “just shy of 300 students,” Reich told The Politic.
“The goal of the course is to bring about a fundamental shift in how students, whatever their choice of major and whatever their career pathway, think about their role as enablers and shapers of technological change in society,” Reich said. “With every new innovation, we want students to ask: What am I enabling others to do?”
But beyond solely being a course for students to consider the ethical and social implications of technological innovation, CS182 was developed “to create an enduring and large undergraduate course that comes to be seen by students as a de facto requirement.” Stanford’s Computer Science department is working to set the ethical dimensions of computer science as fundamental to the discipline, rather than an extraneous requirement for its students.
Yale certainly has courses, centers, and research groups dedicated to examining the intersection of science and social issues. Dr. Ivano Dal Prete, Director of Undergraduate Studies for the History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health major, told The Politic that about 70 percent of HSHM students have taken or are currently taking at least one class in bioethics. HSHM lectures are also becoming increasingly popular among non-majors, drawing “attendance in the hundreds,” and he notes that “the majority of those students have certainly been premedical students or STEM.” Still, simply creating options may not be enough.
While Yale does have ample opportunity for STEM students to branch out into other disciplines, it is not uncommon for a STEM student to stick almost entirely to courses in their major. Jordan shared that within the Computer Science department, “there are specific courses at Yale one can take to familiarize themselves with the impacts and implications of technology on society, but it’s kind of sad to say that most of these courses are not listed as CPSC courses, and they are certainly not widely popular among the [Computer Science] majors.” Having only “a rare few [ethics courses] available as electives” is true for many other STEM majors as well.
Anna Rullán Buxó ’22, a Chemistry major, explains that taking ethics courses is not simply under-emphasized among STEM departments—it is also practically difficult to find scheduling space when there are lab courses and other Chemistry requirements to fulfill using elective credits. As she told The Politic, “Even just making it possible for any STEM major to take an ethics course and have it count towards their major—even if it’s not required—would help immensely.”
Professional Ethics, a course listed under both Yale’s Engineering and Applied Sciences and Ethics, Politics, and Economics departments, is one of the few classes that could count towards some STEM majors’ requirements. As Professor Mercedes Carreras, who has taught the Professional Ethics course in past years, said in an interview with The Politic, “Most of my STEM students have never been exposed to philosophy in their lives. But when they discover philosophers, they love them. Then, for the most part, they want to continue studying those philosophers, and they take more courses on philosophy and government.”
Carreras thinks there should be some kind of ethics requirement within STEM majors because “it’s important to learn about values and how to make decisions, especially in the sciences.”
This would not be easy. Yale’s STEM requirements aren’t centralized; each department has the freedom to decide what the requirements for its undergraduate program are. An ethics requirement would need to be implemented individually by each department.
Tai has been working to do this for the MB&B major. “We can’t pursue the goal of STEM without understanding society and the individuals that we serve,” she said.
Since becoming the co-leader of the new student organization, STEM & Health Equity Advocates (SHEA), Tai has worked successfully with the Director of Undergraduate Studies of MB&B to implement a new half-credit requirement for the MB&B major. The proposal that was approved on September 10 of this year mandates one half-credit “in subject matter at the interface of STEM with identity and society” and states that “this new requirement formalizes our [faculty’s] view that the intersection of Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry with human identity and society is critically important to the training of the next generation.” Other departments that SHEA has tried to work with, however, have not been so open to adjusting their requirements.
At the same time, major requirements are only about a third of the courses a Yale student needs to take. Dr. Tamar Gendler, professor of philosophy as well as psychology and cognitive science, stressed that incorporating ethics courses into existing major programs may dilute the material.
According to Gendler, teaching ethics specifically within a STEM course can change the perspective and the scope of what is being taught; a science professor has a different background and goal compared to a philosophy professor. STEM students might benefit most from courses in “metaphysics and epistemology, which explore the fundamental nature of reality and our knowledge of it, or a course in ethics or political philosophy, which explores normative structures like goodness and justice. The particular content matters less than the exposure to the methodology.”
Gendler’s point is reinforced by the fact that the one ethics requirement that does exist across STEM disciplines is externally imposed and has been met with heavy criticism by some students. The American COMPETES Act requires training in ethical conduct in research for anyone working in a lab that receives funding from the National Science Foundation. Any Yale student doing research-for-credit must take a class to satisfy this COMPETES requirement.
Former Chemistry major Nasser Odetallah ’20 enrolled in CHEM 490, a class offered in partial fulfilment of this requirement. He found its discussion of ethics sanitized and uncontroversial, as his class evaded harder questions about power structures within the sciences.
In a letter to the Yale Chemistry Department this past April, Odetellah acknowledged that his class did cover topics like “sexual misconduct, plagiarism, the history of scientific journals, publication problems, proper lab mentorship, etc., all of which seemed standard and good to learn about. However, the actual nature of the discussions routinely veered into racist, sexist, classist, and elitist beliefs that were uncomfortable to sit through and discuss.”
This semester, Rullán Buxó has noticed that weekly Chemistry department emails show “more effort to include diversity and inclusion workshops, to do education about discrimination in science.” Yet she doubts that the department’s ethical blindspots “will have drastically changed now after a few months.”
Many other questions must also be asked as Yale considers implementing an ethics requirement. What do we mean when we say “ethics?” Who defines ethics and what an ethics class for STEM students should cover? A requirement, as with Stanford, should strive to create a culture that acknowledges ethics as an integral part of a STEM education, rather than another box to check. How could Yale make an ethics requirement meaningful?
There are universal ethical standards for how to conduct science and implement technology. But such narrow definitions lead to the insufficient introspection that Odetallah noticed in his ethics class. Substantive discussions around ethics must also bring with them difficult conversations about history and social justice that critically challenge established approaches to the sciences.
Without dispelling traditional views about science’s objectivity, students cannot partake in meaningful discussion about how the discipline has historically aided systemic racism and social injustice. Tai warns that in an age “when genomics is becoming more and more popular and being utilized to create definitions, it’s particularly important for researchers in chemistry and biology, who are trying to characterize differences in genomics and how that impacts individuals, to be cognizant of how racial biases can actually be put into the very science that we do.”
Even technology itself is not racially neutral, as its algorithms are programmed by researchers with implicit biases of their own. During his internship at Google this past summer, Dallard saw how Google Images could reinforce dangerous myths about racial difference. When one searched “professional hair,” the top results were white women with straight hair; when one searched “unprofessional hair,” the top results were Black people.
“It’s not by virtue of anything intentional; that’s just the way the algorithm worked,” Dallard emphasized. This is why, he noted, it is important to have “people there in the room who are considering: Even though the algorithm ‘works,’ how does it work and how is it going to affect people?”
Given the pervasive nature of modern technology, Jordan insists that “ensuring it treats its users—and ultimately targets—right should be at the very top of our priority list.”
To understand the ethical dilemmas faced in technology, medicine, and any other STEM field, conversations surrounding ethics must take place in diverse environments with racial, gender, and class representation. To achieve this diversity, and to do more than simply promote it on the surface, Tai says, “we need to make people understand why representation is important, and understand that science, while many people think it’s objective, because there have been limited perspectives, really is not.”
Although Yale is steeped in tradition, the university has evolved significantly over its history. While departments’ educational philosophy and requirement structures may not be able to accommodate an ethics requirement for STEM majors yet, there is hope that a cultural shift is on the horizon. Even merely recommending ethics classes to take alongside STEM courses is a step toward ensuring that ethics are embedded in a Yale education.
“As more and more students take such courses, the insights and frameworks that they introduce will become part of the common ground of conversation among Science Hill students,” Gendler explained, “creating a self-reinforcing culture of reflective engagement.”
Jordan agreed but noted that such change will require real investment from the departments themselves. Yale’s “STEM departments [currently don’t] invest time into teaching their students about the gory and direct consequences their work can have on real people,” she emphasized.
“We need to be told some hard truths, and we need to learn from [them], and learn how to make better decisions.”
*Name has been changed for anonymity