Author(s): Michael S. Pritchard, Department of Philosophy, Western Michigan University & Theodore Goldfarb, Department of Chemistry, State University of New York at Stony Brook
NOTE: This contribution appeared as a featured resource in the online and printed issues of ENC Focus: A Magazine for Classroom Innovators Vol. 8 no.3, published by the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education-ENC.
Donald Jermusyk, Hauppauge Middle School, Hauppauge, Long Island, NY.
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Students are divided into small groups. Each group is to imagine itself to be a team of scientists with expertise in industrial water pollution. The teacher distributes the following scenario and instructions to the groups. Each group will report its recommendations to the class.
Clinton Automotive is a factory in the town of Plainsville and the principal employer of the town. Clinton is also a major tax payer for the town and the local school district. The local water company has discovered that the undercoating applied to the chassis of its cars has been seeping into the ground water and is now in the water supply of a small part of the town.
A public meeting has been called to address the concerns. Clinton has threatened to leave town if it incurs heavy expenses and lawsuits related to the plant effluent. Homeowners with affected drinking water are threatening a lawsuit unless Clinton stops using the undercoating and pays for cleaning up the pollutant.
At the public meeting it can be expected that there will be:
Your team of scientists has been hired by the town council to help it and members of the audience understand the significance of what has happened thus far to the groundwater and what will correct the problem (including cost estimates).
Although the groups of students will not be able to make actual estimates, they can discuss their obligations and strategies in serving as town council consultants. To whom do they have obligations in this case? The town council? The community? Clinton? How should this affect their scientific analysis and the report they will construct based on that analysis? Can the team remain value neutral and simply report the facts? Should they attempt to? Why or why not?
This case focuses on the responsibilities of scientists as consultants and as community participants in policy making. It may be thought that scientists simply try to determine the facts, leaving all value questions to others. However, the very purpose of the study undertaken here is to assist the town council in meeting its responsibilities. So, in addition to understanding the town council's responsibilities, a scientific team of consultants also has to make judgments about what kinds of information will be most relevant for its deliberations and the public meeting. It also should take into consideration the needs and rights of the community in this matter--both in regard to questions of health, safety, and welfare and in regard to meaningful participation at a public meeting addressing the concerns of the community.
This does not mean that the scientific team itself makes the policy decisions. But it does mean that it has a responsibility to assist others in making those decisions. The question is whether that responsibility extends only to those who hired the team (the town council), or also to those to whom the town council is accountable (the larger public). Either way, it seems that value neutrality does not capture the role of the scientific team. But if this is right, it does not follow that the team is justified in being partisan to one faction or another. So, this raises another question: to what extent should a team of scientists, even as consultants, strive not to be partisan to the concerns of those for whom they provide consulting services? Should they be partisan to interests of the larger community that will be affected by what is decided? Which interests?
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