Students submit three essays during the term.

Essay Guidelines

Each 6-7 page essay is based on the assigned readings, guest lectures, and documentary videos shown in class (the DVDs are on reserve at the Humanities Library). You are not expected to perform additional research, but you should draw on a minimum of five sources assigned for this class. If you do resort to additional sources, select them judiciously.

As you construct your outline before writing the essay, reflect on the overall structure of this class and the big themes discussed since our first meeting. When writing your essay, critically analyze the readings. Comment on the authors' biases and backgrounds. Who were their intended audiences? Why did each author write his or her document?

The most effective essays will link readings on different topics discussed in class. What patterns are emerging from our readings and discussions of science, ethics, and politics?


Identify on page one the question that you are answering. All papers should be double-spaced and in 12 point font, with adequate (but not excessively large) margins. Please number the pages. All direct quotations and source material should be footnote referenced according to one of the accepted styles. For instance, one acceptable method is as follows:

First citation from source:

  • Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. A Social History of Technology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 253.
  • Subsequent citations from same source: Cowan, p. 254.

Be certain to correctly credit your sources. A guide from MIT Libraries is available here.

Plagiarism is unacceptable, so please review its definition and procedures for avoiding it.

Essay 1

Select one of the following:

  1. Many observers and participants have noted that World War II fundamentally changed the practice of American science, from the particular problems and the scale of the inquiries scientists/engineers addressed, to the manner in which these endeavors were funded. How did the war and its aftermath affect scientific inquiry in the U.S., both positively and negatively?
  2. The atomic bombing of Japan was one of the most significant events of the 20th century. Discuss the factors that led to the atomic bomb program, the decision to use the weapon, and the role of and consequences for scientists/engineers participating in those events.
  3. It is 1953, and you are an American engineer or scientist working at MIT. You've been approached by an official from the Pentagon and offered substantial resources (laboratory and equipment, research funding, support for several graduate students) to work on an unclassified non-weapons program. How do you respond? What factors do you weigh in making your decision? Would your response differ if the proposed research were instead directed toward a secret weapons program? Why?

Essay 2

Select one of the following:

  1. You are a scientist engaged in advanced biotechnology research [stem cell/cloning/GMO/etc]. Congress will soon be voting on a funding bill, and the funding you and your colleagues depend on is largely drawn from this source. You must testify in front of Congress, justifying the science you perform. What beneficial aspects do you emphasize before Congress? What factors or risks do you minimize? Why? What parallels can you draw between these types of federally-funded science and previous Big Science projects?
  2. Advanced science and engineering creates new technologies that carry great promise, but also great risk. For the systems and technologies discussed in class, what are those benefits and risks? Are benefits and risks viewed differently by scientists/engineers, managers, policy makers, and the public? Discuss the ethical conflicts and political decisions inherent in space flight, pesticide use, GMOs, immunizations, stem cell research, and/or cloning.
  3. You are a documentary film maker, developing a feature-length documentary about a new field of scientific research or engineering project, which is likely to raise a diverse set of ethical and political questions. Choose a topic/field/project/accident that most interests you either among the cases that have been covered in the class or among some other cases you are familiar with. Identify the people or organizations that you would interview or investigate for the documentary, and then lay out contrasting perspectives and themes that you would include (in the interview format or otherwise) in order to make the program well-balanced and informative for the public viewers. Remember that, as a director, you are supposed to deliver to the viewers the diversity of arguments and viewpoints, although you will nevertheless end up putting forward your own agenda.

Essay 3

Select one of the following:

  1. Environmental science is becoming an increasingly significant political issue. Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus on the reality of the global climate change phenomenon, doubts still exist in the minds of the American public. How has the debate been shaped both for and against global climate change? What factors may be affecting Americans' attitudes toward fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions? How does the intersection of politics, science, and industry impinge on the ethical choices made by practitioners and leaders in all three realms?
  2. Atomic bombing of civilians, environmental disasters stemming from nuclear technology, questionable decisions resulting in deaths of astronauts, pesticide use and misuse, approval and marketing of unsafe drugs, "frankenfoods" and GMOs provided to unsuspecting consumers, stem cell research and human cloning, risk of resurgent eugenics as a result of genetic screening, global climate change due to human activities, experimentation on human subjects. Among all of these topics analyzed in class this semester, which do you feel presents the thorniest ethical conflict? Discuss the topic in detail, presenting various sides of the debate and the individuals or organizations that are involved in it.
  3. Are technology and science rampant forces? If so, how have they become so, historically or sociologically? Or, are they still under human control? If so, who have the control in which ways? Bolster your contention with examples.