I was waiting in line to pay for my food a few days ago when I overheard a conversation between two people whom appeared to be a professor and a researcher. They seemed to be catching up. Among other things, the researcher asked about a company in which the professor had some financial stake. Receiving a positive response, the researcher then asked if the professor ever receives any research money from said company. The researcher received a strong rebuke. The professor answered that he could not in good conscience advise a graduate student’s research while he had a financial interest in his or her work.
My initial reaction left me simultaneously quite surprised to hear this and extremely proud to attend a university where the faculty have a strong ethical framework (and I believe that professor’s reaction is representative of the faculty). It makes me even prouder (and the reason for my surprise) considering recent articles in the New Yorker among others that convey that the framework of some of our peer institutions can appear to be a little murkier. Personally, it caused me to reflect on what I observed and how I would handle a similar situation. To be honest, I didn’t know where or how to start to answer such a question.
The motto of MIT, as I’ve repeated countless times on tours is “Mens et Manus” — mind and hand. I’ve often heard that an MIT education, no matter your course number, teaches you two things: how to think (mens) and how to solve problems (manus). Most importantly and ever more increasingly, the world expects and demands that an MIT graduate be able to solve the world’s complex problems. As such, the Institute has been at the forefront of solving these complex problems with initiatives directed at buzzwords such as energy, manufacturing, health sciences, and MOOCs. I feel very satisfied that MIT has prepared me to do those two things and do them the very well. However, the glaring question I can’t answer is, “Do I have the proper contextual understanding to approach solving complex problems?”
After two plus years, MIT has enabled me to analyze Navier-Stokes in the boundary layer, to create my own airline, and to write a policy memo on the Afghanistan surge, but I’ve only received one lecture on engineering ethics. That lecture was right after a quiz and the two people sitting next to me were snoring. I can’t tell you the first thing about how I should feel that the airplanes that I love and want to build for the rest of my life are not innocent bystanders to anthropogenic climate change. I don’t know how to view the reality that to be able to work on the most exciting and cutting edge hypersonic research would most likely contribute to a product that would enable a policymaker to singe the hair off a target’s back on his rooftop halfway across the globe.
When I ask my friends similar questions, they don’t know how to approach these problems either. That’s not to say my friends and I are lacking in strong moral and ethical character. I am thankful to my parents and many others who have provided me with a strong framework in how to treat and respect other human beings. I would like to say that all MIT students have that same sense of grounding and respect, but being kind to others isn’t correlated with being able to understand the ethical consequences of your decisions or education. For example, I don’t know how to feel about learning about something as beneficial as cancer pathways when I take 7.013 senior spring with the consideration that the knowledge was discovered with the use of numerous “models.” These “models” include lab mice whose laughter you can hear at very high frequencies when they are tickled.
The world needs MIT-trained engineers, scientists, doctors, writers, teachers, policymakers and even professors, but the lack of mandatory ethics education and how to understand the context behind complex problems is stark. I’m not sure if this could be fixed with an additional ethics GIR or included as a component of the communication (CI) requirement, but I feel there needs to be something more than a single powerpoint on the professional engineer’s code of ethics.
As MIT seeks to reach beyond the residential campus and teach “the next billion people,” the Institute cannot lose sight of its responsibility to provide a framework and context for the knowledge it provides to the world. Initiatives like edX provide the Institute with enormous power to lead and define this decade and the 21st century as it did in the 20th. But with this power comes the responsibility to provide a solid ethical framework for all the members of the MIT community. I just hope that the committees defining the future of MIT incorporate the need for ethics training as they shape the future of the Institute.
Gregory Kravit is a member of the Class of 2015.