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Incorporating Ethics into Nuclear Physics—Michael Murray (2007)


Nuclear physics inherently contains many potentially difficult ethical dilemmas. In his course on the theory and practice of nuclear physics, a professor prepares students for ethical situations they may encounter during graduate school.


Nuclear Physics is a graduate/advanced undergraduate course which trains physicists in theory and practice of nuclear physics. During Fall 2007, I incorporated an ethics component into the course as part of multi-institutional research project aimed at improving ethics education in the sciences. As a field, nuclear physics inherently contains many potentially difficult ethical dilemmas. My goal was to prepare students for ethical situations they may encounter during graduate school or early in their professional careers.


I combined lecture, discussion, and homework assignments to teach ethical decision-making. I provided background on two possible decision-making frameworks, then allowed students to demonstrate their understanding by choosing a case study and their preferred ethical approach to analyze the case.

Student Work

Students participated enthusiastically in discussions and appeared to put substantial time into their case analyses. As a result, most students performed well on the case study assignment.


Next time I teach this course I would like to engage the students at a higher level by asking students to critique the ethical analyses approaches 1. relative to each other and 2. relative to the scientific method. Specifically, I want students to examine the consequences, in both cases, of getting conflicting results using different methods of analyses.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No 0629443. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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During Fall 2007, I taught PHSX 641/741, Nuclear Physics. This course is a three-credit, elective course that is comprised mostly of physics majors. Six graduate students and four advanced undergraduate students were enrolled.

The field of nuclear physics has many ethical dilemmas. Trained as nuclear physicists, graduates can easily move into the defense industry which entails large-scale ethical dilemmas. The ethics surrounding nuclear power require physicists to analyze the balance between the need for energy and the safety of present and future generations. More generally, ethical concerns over how to treat people in collaborations, i.e. assigning appropriate credit, the responsibility of coauthors to verify the validity of colleague's work, and the issue of data fabrication are also common in the field of nuclear physics (and science in general).

To prepare students for the ethical situations they will ultimately face, the Society of Physics Students (SPS) recommends that physics departments teach ethics to undergraduate and graduate physicists. Still, to my knowledge, ethics are not formally taught in our department, and an ethics component has never been embedded in this course before.

My primary goal was to engage students around ethical issues, and introduce them to the decision-making frameworks in which they can manage ethical dilemmas. In this way, I hoped to prepare students with skills and knowledge to help them deal with ethical questions they will encounter early in their careers (during the PhD process or soon thereafter). Ultimately, I would like these ethics lessons to be incorporated in the mandatory preparatory seminar in which all beginning graduate students in physics at KU are enrolled.

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Due to time constraints, I focused on two of the three approaches to ethical problem-solving: 1. utilitarianism and 2. rights and duties. I chose these particular two approaches because I thought science students would initially be most prepared for analyzing situations in these frameworks.

To set the stage for ethics discussions in my course, I provided students with three different readings that served as the basis for our discussions. First, I read a statement from the Society of Physics Students (SPS) which recommends that physics departments teach ethics to undergraduate and graduate physicists. I did this to provide a concrete justification for the time spent in class on ethics. Second, I read a segment from Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller, to open dialogue regarding the ethical dilemmas around nuclear weapons and the power that comes with the knowledge to build them. This provided a larger, more philosophical context and motivation for exploring ethical decision-making. Third, I read part of a New York Times article that discussed the role of engineers in the corporate environment.

To present the ethical approaches, I gave two one-hour lectures, one on the utilitarian approach, one on the deontological approach. Prior to each class, students were asked to read the appropriate chapter of Dr. DeGeorge’s book (Business Ethics, 2005). I required students to hand in a summary of the material for each chapter, as well as a list of key words and major points in order to 1. ensure that students completed and comprehended the readings and 2. stimulate higher level discussion during class. I graded these according to completion.

I chose the Johnson control case as one of the cases students read, because it exactly mirrors my professional life. Due to the dangers of exposure to radiation at my research site in Geneva, I must ask women if they are pregnant. If a woman is pregnant, I cannot penalize her, but I also cannot assign her duties in the highest radiation environments. The ethical considerations surrounding endangering a fetus create a complex situation in which I ultimately assign duties according to gender/condition.

While discussing the case study with my class, I did not want to sound patronizing or lead them to the ethical solution I practice, so I did not mention the parallels to my own professional situation. However, the class coalesced to the Department of Energy approach (women should not be penalized for being pregnant, but one does have a duty to protect a fetus and that may come at a slight professional cost). After the class discussed the case, I then shared my professional experience which fostered a fruitful class discussion.

After students were familiar with the material and we'd discussed several examples at length, they completed a critical analysis of a case-study. Students were allowed to choose between two case studies (presented in Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 of DeGeorge’s book). For the case they chose, they could then select which approach—utilitarian or deontological—they wanted to use for analysis.

To guide students through their case analysis and to guide my own assessment of their work, I created grading criteria for each ethical approach (Utilitarian Rubric and Deontological Rubric) based on the steps outlined in Dr. DeGeorge’s book.

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Student Work

Students completed an ethical analysis of the case of their choice using the approach of their choice. Interestingly, most students chose the utilitarian approach (probably because it is the most straightforward and most similar to scientific reasoning). Overall, students performed well on this assignment (Grade Distribution). Of the 10 students, six earned A grades, one earned a B, two received C grades, and one received a D.

The student with the lowest score (12/20) analyzed a case in which a character misrepresented (“fudged”) data in a scientific study. It was clear the student took it very seriously and personally; as a mature student returning to school after a corporate career and given his strong reaction in the paper, it seems likely that he was in an analogous situation during his own professional career. This highlights how challenging it may be for some to follow logical ethical decision-making steps while personally invested in an ethically challenging situation. He might well have benefited from analyzing the case from a virtues approach.

Examples of students’ work:

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Professor Murray speaking with students

Michael Murray


My impression was that students really enjoyed thinking and discussing the ethical scenarios; they seemed to put more time into the case analyses than they did their regular nuclear physics assignments! I suspect that in addition to students appreciating an assignment without equations, they also enjoyed the topic because the analysis structure is a logical structure (as with the science they practice)—just a different one—and so students were comfortable with executing the analyses.

The discussion in my class was particularly interesting because of the diversity of students. Of ten students, three were females. Six were graduate students, four were undergraduate students. One student returned from duty in the Navy, and another student was aiming to work in nuclear power. This diverse set of backgrounds and goals elicited dynamic discussions that I greatly appreciated. Further, there was a substantial cultural mix; foreign students made up nearly half of the class. I found that, in general, the American students were more vocal during the ethics classes. This is likely in part due to language barriers, and perhaps also in part due to the cultural context of ethical situations and solutions. In the future it will be worth considering the ways in which cultural upbringing might influence one's approach to ethical decision-making.

In the case of the Johnson Control’s case, my students appeared to disproportionately criticize the lower level managers without giving attention to the context in which those managers might operate (i.e. higher level managers may only focus on the short term bottom line). Our recent graduates will most likely start their careers as lower level managers who are not creating policies. My experience teaching this course leads me to ask: do we just talk to students about lower levels which are more realistic for their positions in the near future, or do we train them to think about the decisions they would have to make at higher levels (which is more difficult and more removed)? I suspect the former is more relevant.

What I will do differently next time
There are several changes I would like to implement next time I teach this course. First, I would not omit the virtues approach. Although the decision to focus on the utilitarian and ontological approaches was purely a practical one due to time constraints, I realize now it would greatly benefit students to have the full suite of decision-making framework options.

Second, I would engage the students at a higher intellectual level for the first assignment in order to ensure they are completing graduate-level work. My initial goal for their first assignment was simply to become familiar with the terminology prior to class. Next time, instead of having them hand in notes they took from the readings, I will make a Blackboard online quiz for the basic vocabulary—just to ensure they have read the material. Then, I will have students complete a “deeper-thinking” assignment that challenges them to critique the strengths and limitations of each ethical problem-solving approach.

This change stems from my realization that I presented the different decision-making processes as “cookbook approaches,” more typical of how we might teach an undergraduate class. By assigning students with the task of critiquing the approaches, I would hopefully elicit more thorough and thoughtful responses. For example, the virtues approach can make individuals feel as if they are doing the best thing possible, independent of a potentially corrupt corporate culture. The utilitarian approach is perhaps the one that appeals most to our common sense, but it has the practical problem that we tend not to list all of the stakeholders (perhaps because we don't value people distant from our situation). The ontological approach reflects a shift from rules-based safety regulations to duties-based (respecting the rights of others by meeting safety standards); what are the relative merits of this?

In addition to analyzing ethical approaches relative to one another, I hope to challenge students to compare ethical approaches with the methods of science. For example, analysis of the same ethical dilemma using different approaches can yield conflicting results. As scientists, we are most comfortable/confident when different experimental approaches lead to the same result; conflicting results often indicate an error or a misunderstood aspect of the experiment. I would like to challenge students to identify the similarities and differences among ethical approaches that might lead to conflicting results, and relate that to the process of scientific discovery.

These changes (and my desire to teach ethics, in general) stem from two substantive criticisms of teaching ethics to science students that I hear from colleagues. First, “There is no ethical dilemma that the students could conceivably face for which the answer is not obvious.” My experience with the Johnson Controls case involving pregnant workers convinced me that this is not true. Although the students did converge on a solution, it took a significant amount of discussion. As with any other discipline, making ethical decisions takes practice and effort at first. Second, I have been told that “Ethics is just opinions,” “Everything is gray,” or “If I use another set of criteria I get a different answer.” While there are certainly difficult cases, I think that a basic understanding of ethical reasoning can be very useful to young PhDs. It is highly likely that they will end up as level-one managers, balancing the interests of many stakeholders. Gray areas are also nothing new to science. Different experiments do sometimes contradict each other. Scientists learn to tread carefully in these cases, since it is obvious that more effort is made to make a definitive measurement. But when several different experiments give the same result, we can have confidence in this measurement. Similarly, most of the time when we apply the utilitarian, ontological or virtues approaches to problems, we get the same result. Finally, scientists are often legally required to follow certain ethical approaches. Thus, knowledge of ethical decision-making is important for the professional development of our students.

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