Polio As a Case Study in Science Ethics
Posted: Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015
by Alan Colburn
Imagine for a moment the Ebola virus came to the United States. How do you think people would react? But now imagine scientists had developed a vaccine which they believed would be moderately effective at protecting people from the disease. Now how do you think people would react?
The situation is hypothetical, but the country confronted a similar situation in the 1950s when faced with polio – and a potential vaccine protecting against its spread.
Anyone alive in the 50’s remembers polio and the terror people felt at the possibility they or their children could catch the disease, which was also called infantile paralysis. Places people congregated, like swimming pools, theaters, and even churches, closed during the summer “polio season.” The March of Dimes was created to help fund a cure – ten cents at a time.
The payoff ultimately came when researchers like Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin developed vaccines that would prevent the disease from spreading, if they worked. Like all things scientific, first they needed to be tested. That essentially meant injecting a child, since children were the main victims, with a dead or weakened version of the dreaded polio virus. Today’s analogy would be injecting people with a dead or weakened version of the Ebola virus.
Testing vaccines against diseases such as polio or Ebola raises a panoply of ethical questions:
– Is it ethical to test a vaccine on primates if the only alternative is to do the research on human populations?
– Is it ethical to experiment on vulnerable populations (like children), if they are the group most susceptible to the illness?
– If you had a voice in how limited funds were to be spent, would you encourage rushing something moderately good to market, or use the money to invest in a better solution that would take longer?
– When should large-scale human trials of a vaccine begin, if people are dying and the vaccine might save lives?
For the K-12 science teacher interested in using and applying science practices, perhaps the most relevant questions are about the ethics of biomedical research (including vaccine testing) with placebo control groups. To be able to think about these issues in an informed way, teachers, students, and our entire populace, needs to understand something about different types of experimental designs and the factors researchers must consider when designing valid and reliable experiments. As K-12 science teachers you can help students understand the essential background information and the kinds of questions everyone needs to ask to help us make informed choices. This kind of practical value, in fact, was one of (several) factors considered by NGSS’s creators when deciding what content to include in the new standards.
With something as potentially lifesaving as a polio (or Ebola) vaccine, for example, pundits might make the case everyone should get the medicine. Why test with placebos? Why not experiment with the vaccine, see how many people in the test group were sickened by polio, and just compare the results with those seen during past summers?
The problem with this alternative experimental procedure was that the incidence of polio varied from one year to the next. No one knew why this was, and no one knew what the incidence was “supposed” to be when Salk’s vaccine was being tested. Researchers argued the only way the vaccine could be “fairly” tested would be by comparing its effectiveness against an untreated control group.
Biomedical researchers are confronted with the same dilemmas today. If your child was sick, and an experimental medicine might help, would you want your child to be part of a control group receiving a placebo?
In the case of the polio vaccine, the disease incidence in normal human populations was small enough that a statistically significant test would need to involve sample sizes involving hundreds of thousands of children. The test would need to be double blind, meaning that neither the clinician nor the subjects know who is receiving the vaccine and who the placebo. Assuming the vaccine was safe and effective, children in control groups receiving placebos continued to lack protection against the disease and were essentially being denied a potentially lifesaving treatment.
Ethical dilemmas, by definition, are mutually exclusive options, none of which appears to be completely satisfactory. Critical thinkers should recognize this, and be able to cogently explain the multiple sides of these often controversial issues. As science teachers we can help our students achieve these goals, while providing them with the scientific literacy we all need to make informed decisions, e.g., understanding what “statistical significance” and “double blind testing” means, as well as introducing concepts of antibodies and the immune response.
That said, what happened with the polio vaccine? It’s a rather amazing story. Testing the vaccine was (and is) the largest experiment ever undertaken, involving more than 500,000 research subjects. David Olshinsky tells it well in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Polio: An American Story. Or, if you prefer, The Polio Crusade, an episode of PBS’s American Experience TV series closely follows Olshinsky’s story. It’s available online.
For assistance in thinking through lessons on ethics, The Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Research, sponsored through the National Academies, is a good place to start. The site has a section devoted to ethics in the science classroom, which in turn has information about creating lessons.
Alan Colburn is a professor of science education at California State University, Long Beach, and is a member of CSTA.
Posted: Tuesday, March 14th, 2017
The pre-publication version of the new California Science Curriculum Framework is now available for download. This publication incorporates all the edits that were approved by the State Board of Education in November 2016 and was many months in the making. Our sincere thanks to the dozens of CSTA members were involved in its development. Our appreciation is also extended to the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Instructional Quality Commission, and the Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee and their staff for their hard work and dedication to produce this document and for their commitment to the public input process. To the many writers and contributors to the Framework CSTA thanks you for your many hours of work to produce a world-class document.
For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.
The final publication version (formatted for printing) will be available in July 2017. This document will not be available in printed format, only electronically.
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
The 2017 Award Season is now open! One of the benefits of being a CSTA member is your eligibility for awards as well as your eligibility to nominate someone for an award. CSTA offers several awards and members may nominate individuals and organizations for the Future Science Teacher Award, the prestigious Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, and the CSTA Distinguished Contributions Award (organizational award). May 9, 2017 is the deadline for nominations for these awards. CSTA believes that the importance of science education cannot be overstated. Given the essential presence of the sciences in understanding the past and planning for the future, science education remains, and will increasingly be one of the most important disciplines in education. CSTA is committed to recognizing and encouraging excellence in science teaching through the presentation of awards to science educators and organizations who have made outstanding contributions in science education in the state and who are poised to continue the momentum of providing high quality, relevant science education into the future. Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
CSTA is now accepting applications from regular, preservice, and retired members to serve on our volunteer committees! CSTA’s all-volunteer board of directors invites you to consider maximizing your member experience by volunteering for CSTA. CSTA committee service offers you the opportunity to share your expertise, learn a new skill, or do something you love to do but never have the opportunity to do in your regular day. CSTA committee volunteers do some pretty amazing things: Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
by Marian Murphy-Shaw
If you attended an NGSS Rollout phase 1-3 or CDE workshops at CSTA’s annual conference you may recall hearing from Chris Breazeale when he was working with the CDE. Chris has relocated professionally, with his passion for science education, and is now the Executive Director at the Explorit Science Center, a hands-on exploration museum featuring interactive STEM exhibits located at the beautiful Mace Ranch, 3141 5th St. in Davis, CA. Visitors can “think it, try it, and explorit” with a variety of displays that allow visitors to “do science.” To preview the museum, or schedule a classroom visit, see www.explorit.org. Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
by Joseph Calmer
Probably like you, NGSS has been at the forefront of many department meetings, lunch conversations, and solitary lesson planning sessions. Despite reading the original NRC Framework, the Ca Draft Frameworks, and many CSTA writings, I am still left with the question: “what does it actually mean for my classroom?”
I had an eye-opening experience that helped me with that question. It came out of a conversation that I had with a student teacher. It turns out that I’ve found the secret to learning how to teach with NGSS: I need to engage in dialogue about teaching with novice teachers. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching science in some capacity for 12 years. During that time pedagogy and student learning become sort of a “hidden curriculum.” It is difficult to plan a lesson for the hidden curriculum; the best way is to just have two or more professionals talk and see what emerges. I was surprised it took me so long to realize this epiphany. Learn More…