NSF invests in Berkeley’s Interdisciplinary Approach to Green Chemistry and Ethics Education

How do you compare the impact of 1 ton of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere to that of 1 milligram of an endocrine disrupter in our water supply, or compare the value of $1,000 spent on complying with environmental regulations with $1,000 spent on economic growth?

Weighing these issues requires substantial technical knowledge, but also inescapably involves ethical and moral judgments about the importance of environmental sustainability, public health, and economic growth. Citizens, scientists, workers, politicians and businesses leaders are regularly asked to make these judgments through decisions having far-reaching impacts on the future sustainability of our society. As Dr. Megan Schwarzman of the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC) points out, “As chemistry takes a concerted step toward sustainability through the practice of green chemistry, there are a host of questions of ethics and values at the intersection of technology, public health, business practices, societal norms, and governance. Most graduate students don't get the chance to consider these issues as part of their education.” The BCGC faculty believes that this is a critical time for an integrated approach to interdisciplinary ethics education that provides graduate students with experiential learning opportunities.

The National Science Foundation has provided Berkeley’s BCGC with a 2-year, $300,000 grant to develop this project, beginning with a new interdisciplinary course, the Public Ethics of Green Chemistry.  The project will be led by Principal Investigators Professor Alastair Iles (Environmental Science, Policy and Management) and Dr. Megan Schwarzman, M.D. (Research Scientist, School of Public Health), as well as BCGC personnel Dr. Joseph H. Guth, Ph.D., J.D. (Research Scientist, School of Public Health and Professor Christine Rosen (Haas School of Business). The new course will be offered for the first time during the fall 2012 semester. Its aim is to draw attention to the critical role of ethics in understanding why and how legal, market, business, political, and societal systems can affect the chemical production system. This approach goes beyond the existing approach of teaching scientific integrity by considering a full range of factors that influence how important decisions are made. By creating an experiential learning environment, the course will put students in the role of decision makers, challenging them to take a systems view of the impacts created by changes in policy, regulation and business practices. Professor Iles believes that, “students will learn better by being immersed in situations of ethical decision-making of the kind that practitioners face daily.” Drawing on the expert support of the BCGC, the curriculum will be able to incorporate new developments in biobased technologies, international changes in chemicals regulations, and the rapidly changing perceptions of sustainability in society.

This new course offering builds on the momentum created by BCGC educational efforts over the past 18 months. With support from California EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the BCGC introduced new undergraduate laboratory curricula in introductory chemistry classes last year, developed an interdisciplinary graduate class in green chemistry, and continued offering two additional graduate level seminar courses. A second year of funding from DTSC is supporting further course development for undergraduate labs and advanced graduate seminars.  All this work is placing BCGC in a leadership role in interdisciplinary Green Chemistry education, and BCGC personnel hope to cement this role by consolidating the new courses into a designated emphasis in Green Chemistry, offering Berkeley graduate students the chance to delve deeply into this emerging field.

Haas School of Business Professor Christine Rosen, teaching graduate students about the business drivers for green chemistry. Rosen is a collaborator on the new NSF ethics education training grant.