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: Saturday, January 14th, 2017
The Council of Math/Science Educators of San Mateo County will be hosting the 41st annual STEM Conference this February 4, 2017 at the San Mateo County Office of Education. This STEM Conference is the place to get lots of new lessons and ideas to use in your classroom. There will be over twenty-five workshops and a variety of exhibitors that provide participants with a wide range of practical and realistic ideas and resources to use in their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs from Pre-K to grade 12. With California’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards, we are dedicated to ensuring that we prepare our teachers to take on these educational policies.
Teachers, administrators and parents are invited to explore the many exciting aspects of STEM education and learn about and discuss the latest news, information and issues. This is also an opportunity to network with colleagues who can assist you in building your programs and meet new friends that share your interests and love of teaching.
Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017
What follows are several opportunities for science teachers to work with the Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) on various projects that have direct or indirect implications for the implementation of NGSS in California. Please consider applying to one or more of the following opportunities.
CSET Field Testing Opportunities
Field testing opportunities for future CSET Multiple Subjects and Science tests are available beginning Dec. 5, 2016. Participants will have the choice between a $50 Barnes and Noble eGift Card or a $75 test fee voucher that may be applied to future test registration fees. For more information, including how to register to participate, please visit: http://www.pearsonvue.com/espilot/cset.asp. Learn More…
Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017
Achieve has launched and is facilitating an EQuIP Peer Review Panel for Science–a group of expert reviewers who will evaluate the quality and alignment of lessons and units to the standards–in an effort to identify and shine a spotlight on emerging high-quality lesson and unit plans designed for the NGSS.
If you or your state, district, school, or organization has designed NGSS-aligned instructional materials, please consider submitting these in order to help provide educators across the country with various models and templates of high-quality lesson and unit plans. Learn More…
Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017
An upcoming Perry Outreach Program on Saturday, April 22, 2017 at the Orthopaedic Institute for Children in Los Angeles, CA. The Perry Outreach Program is a free, one-day, hands-on experience for high school and college-aged women who are interested in pursuing careers in medicine and engineering. Students will hear from women leaders in these fields and try it for themselves by performing mock orthopaedic surgeries and biomechanics experiments. Learn More…
Posted: Friday, January 13th, 2017
by Jessica Sawko
January 2017 has proven to be a very busy month for science education policy and CA NGSS implementation activities. CSTA has been and will be there every step of the way, seeking and enacting all options to support high-quality science education and the successful implementation of CA NGSS.
California Department of Education/U.S. Department of Education Science Double-Testing Waiver Hearing
The year started with California Department of Education’s (CDE) hearing with the U.S. Department of Education conducted via WebEx on January 6, 2017. This hearing was the final step in California’s efforts to secure a waiver from the federal government in order to discontinue administration of the old CST and suspension of the reporting of student test scores on a science assessment for two years. As reported by EdSource, the U.S. Department of Education representative, Ann Whalen, a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary John King Jr., committed to making her final ruling “very shortly.” Deputy Superintendent Keric Ashley presented on behalf of CDE during the hearing and did an excellent job describing the broad-based support for this waiver in California, the rationale for the waiver, and California’s commitment to the successful implementation of a new high-quality science assessment. As previously reported, California is moving forward with its plans to administer a census pilot assessments this spring. The testing window is set to open on March 20, 2017. For more information visit New CA Science Test: What You Should Know.