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Ethics in the Science Classroom: An Instructional Guide for Secondary School Science Teachers



Author(s) Theodore Goldfarb Michael Pritchard

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.

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.

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Contributor(s) Michael Pritchard
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Authoring Institution (obsolete) Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education-ENC
Volume 8
Issue 3
Year 1999
Publisher provided Keywords Instructional Methods Pedagogical Materials SCIENCE
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
Language English

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Table of Contents

Lesson 7, Fraud In Science: Circumstances and Consequences

David J. Flatley, Principal, Selden Middle School, Selden, Long Island, NY. 
(This lesson was developed when Mr. Flatley was Chair of Mathematics and Science at W.T. Clarke Middle School, Westbury, Long Island, NY.) 
and Jana Alferone, Woodland Middle School, East Meadow, Long Island, NY

Overview of Lesson

Courses for Which the Lesson is Intended
As written, the lesson is intended for middle school and junior high school science classes, but the teacher-authors suggest that with minimal changes it could be used in any secondary science classroom through high school.
Types of Teaching/Learning Activities Employed in this Lesson
Students are given a fictitious case study to read in preparation for the class. The scenario involves a young industrial research scientist assigned to a research project, her supervisor and her research director. Brief sketches of the principal characters are included along with a description of the project and actions they take which include clear examples of scientific misconduct. Several questions are presented after the case study to prepare students for a classroom discussion of the case. The teacher leads a class discussion loosely based on the written questions, but intended to explore any other relevant ethics and values issues raised by the students. This case study can also be readily adapted for a role-playing classroom exercise.
Categories that Best Describe this Lesson
Behavior of scientists, social issues, honesty.
Ethics/Values Issues Raised by this Lesson
The principal issue is the effect of dishonesty in interpreting and reporting research results, especially in matters related to health. This includes not only the potential effects with respect to the public, but also effects on science - such as undermining trust within the scientific community, misleading other researchers and damaging the public image of science.

Several other ethical issues related to this lesson that may be raised by students, or by the teacher include:

  • Distinguishing legitimate manipulation of data from fudging
  • Assigning credit for a scientific discovery
  • Age discrimination
  • Gender discrimination
  • Performing research to promote goals (like those of the tobacco industry) that may be interpreted as contrary to the public interest.

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Lesson Plan

  1. At the end of the class period preceding the one during which this lesson is to be taught the teacher hands out the case study, Fraud In Science: Circumstances and Consequences (see below) and instructs students to read it carefully, and to prepare for the discussion of the case by writing responses to the questions at the end of the handout.
  2. At the beginning of the next class period the teacher should invite questions from the students concerning any problems they may have had in understanding the details of the case study. Other students should be invited to help the teacher respond to these questions as a way of assuring that everyone begins the discussion with a common understanding of the facts of the case.
  3. The teacher should then lead a discussion of the case, using the written questions as an outline, but not as a rigid format that would preclude exploring other relevant ethics or values issues that may be raised by the students.
  4. After the students have had the opportunity to describe their views on the ethics of the actions of Jana A., Enrico F. and Marie C., invite them to respond to the question, Which of the three characters in the story behaved in a manner that you would consider to be the most unethical -- and why? This question is likely to generate an interesting discussion and reveal both similarities and differences in the value systems that individual students use in making their ethical judgments.
  5. The teacher should direct the discussion of the potential negative effects of the actions of the case study characters so as to focus on the ways in which science may be affected as well as on the more obvious human health effects that may be caused by the decision to use the new bacterial strain. It is important to discuss the evidence that unethical behavior of the sort described in this case study is not very common among research scientists.

Fictional Case Study-Fraud In Science: Circumstances and Consequences

Dr. Jana A. is a young research scientist working in the research and development department of Crick Biotech, Inc. For the past three years she has been a member of a team of scientists examining the properties of genetically altered strains of E. coli bacteria.

The aim of the research is to produce a strain that meets the following criteria:

  1. The bacteria will not be pathogenic to any organism they may come in contact with.
  2. The genetic alteration will allow these bacteria to live symbiotically with tobacco plants and to be capable of converting atmospheric nitrogen to a chemical form that can be used by the plants. (This process is called fixing nitrogen.) The result would be healthier, more productive tobacco plants, requiring less fertilizer -- thus reducing costs for tobacco farmers.

Other members of Dr. Jana A.'s team include her Senior Associate, who is her immediate supervisor, and the Project Director, who is responsible for reporting the groups findings and making recommendations to corporation's Board of Directors.

Project Director: Dr. Enrico F. is 68 years old. While he is well respected in the scientific community and in the corporation, he has been under recent pressure from the Board. He has not produced a money-making development in several years. Some of the younger Board members feel he no longer practices cutting edge science. He would very much like to prove them wrong before his anticipated retirement in two years.

Senior Associate: Dr. Marie C. is 45 years old. She is widely considered to be next in line for the position of Project Director. She is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the team's research effort. Her principal duty is to oversee the work of several junior research scientists, including Dr. Jana A. In addition to her responsibilities at the lab, she is president of the local chapter of the national organization, Women Scientists in Industry.

Dr. Jana A. has been given the responsibility for a critical part of the investigation. She has isolated a strain of altered bacteria which has been shown to meet the second set of requirements. Dr. Jana A is conducting tests to make sure that it isn't pathogenic. Jana believes that the strain she has isolated is safe. Most of the data support this hypothesis. However, some data suggest potential problems. It is known that other mutant forms of E. coli can cause serious, sometimes fatal human infections. Jana is aware of this. She also knows that future funding for the research, and possibly her job, may be in doubt if her problematic data become known. She makes note of the data in her notebook, but does not include it in the positive research report that she writes on the results of her tests on the new bacterial strain.

Dr. Marie C. reviews the report and notices what appears to be some missing data and incon-sistencies. Like Jana, she is very anxious to see the team's positive results recognized. Therefore, despite her doubts she approves the report and sends it to the Project Director. A week later, still troubled she asks Jana about the inconsistencies. She reviews Jana's lab notes and observes that there are a small number of "weird" data that raise some questions about the safety of the new starin of bacteria. She decides to support Dana's decision to ignore this data and makes no further report to Dr. Enrico F.

Dr. Enrico F. meets with the Board of directors to announce the team's encouraging findings. He makes the following recommendations:

  • Crick Biotech should invest corporate funds in producing large quantities of the new strain of bacteria and make a public announcement of the forthcoming availability of the new product.
  • The new strain should be named E.enrico, in honor of its producer and developer. He plans to publish the research results in a paper that will list only his and Dr. Marie C.'s names as authors.
  1. What actions of the three principal characters in this fictional case study would you consider unethical? Why?
  2. What do you think motivated each of the unethical acts that you described in answering the first question. How do these likely motivations effect your judgement of the moral character of each of these individuals?
  3. Do you think that questionable behavior like that described in this case study is common among research scientists? What is the basis for your answer?
  4. What negative consequences are likely to arise as a result of the unethical behaviors you have identified?
  5. In addition to these specific examples of unethical behavior, can you think of any other ethics or values that are brought to mind by this case?

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The stereotypic cultural image of a scientist among most members of our society, including secondary school students, incorporates the virtue of honesty. It is important to stress to students that this lesson is not designed to undermine the notion that most scientists do exhibit high levels of honesty in their professional work. However, as demonstrated by several recent cases that have received considerable media attention, scientists like all human beings can occasionally be expected to give in to the sorts of personal pressures that result in dishonest or fraudulent behavior.

A goal of this lesson is to heighten student awareness of the serious consequences that can be the result of scientific dishonesty. Students will generally be quick to recognize that the dishonest behavior depicted in the case study could be serious because it may subject the public to a serious health risk. In general students are likely to focus on danger to the public as an obvious serious consequence of dishonest behavior by scientists whose work relates to products related to human health or safety. It may be necessary for the teacher to direct the discussion toward the threat that dishonesty poses to the scientific enterprise itself. Scientific knowledge is cumulative and a scientist needs to have confidence that the facts and data he or she uses are the result of honest efforts by other scientists.

The particular case study included in this lesson is cleverly designed to raise a variety of possible ethical issues. By providing personal information about the scientists it puts a human face on the discussion. Students will differ in their assessment of the relative moral culpability of the various characters. The fact that the research is designed to aid farmers in the production of tobacco is likely to lead to an interesting discussion of the ethics of participating in research on a product, which though legal, poses a serious health threat to consumers.

Return to Part 2 - Model Classroom Lessons

Return to Ethics in the Science Classroom: An Instructional Guide for Secondary School Science Teachers

Cite this page: "Lesson 7, Fraud In Science: Circumstances and Consequences" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 7/13/2006 OEC Accessed: Tuesday, March 28, 2017 <>