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EuChemS Course “Good Chemistry – Methodological, Ethical, and Social Implications” by Dr. Jan Mehlich

Chemistry – or science in general – does not exist in a vacuum. Everything what chemists – the target audience for this course, albeit all other disciplines are welcomed – do, takes place in a larger societal context, and it may strongly affect it. This is why it is important to do not only chemistry – but good chemistry.

The content of this course, taught by EuChemS Award for Service winner Dr Jan Mehlich is strongly related to daily research activites: Science conduct, logic and theory of science, experimentation, writing publications, dealing with uncertainty, social impact of scientific activity. Using the concept of “applied ethics”, the course focuses on the  fundamentals in philosophy of science and research ethics to the particular conduct of science and its internal and external domains of responsibility. By doing so, the course aims to sharpen and solidify the students’ awareness for the theory of research practice, their knowledge of ethics and their ability to exploit ethical thinking for the application in the social sphere science and technology as a field of human activity that impacts the quality of life of people all over the planet. We consider all this through a wide range of distinct categories – each lecture focuses on a specific area.

You can access all lectures after registering – therefore, if any of the topics below catches your eye, we are looking forward to welcoming you in class! After completing each topic, you will receive an online certificate verifying your competencies within that specific area.

If you have completed all 15 classes, you can receive a certificate for the completion of the entire course for a fee. For details, please reach out to secretariat[at]


At first glance, chemistry and ethics have nothing much to do with each other. One is a modern natural science, empirical, analytic, firmly grounded in ever-refined and improved theories, with high creative potential and applicability for improving everyone’s life quality. The other either reminds us of common-sense folk morality or of dry, dusty, intellectual armchair philosophy. Where do these two disciplines – or: attitudes of making sense of our life world – meet?

We start the series of three classes on methodological aspects of chemical science from a very broad perspective: What exactly is scientific inquiry, why is it useful, what are its limits, and how is it different from other forms of human knowledge generation?

How can we make sure that a statement is scientific in a way that it fulfils certain requirements of scientific knowledge
generation? What is the method with which scientists come to insights that deserve the label scientific? This class and the next aim at describing all the features that make scientific research such a powerful way of gaining viable insights.

Besides the technical and experimental skills in daily lab work and a profound knowledge of one’s professional field, chemical scientists need competence in analysing and interpreting their acquired experimental data in view of the claims they made in their research hypotheses. Both – making proper hypotheses and interpreting data in a scientific manner – are topics in this class. It also addresses record keeping as a proper way of data handling and facilitating fruitful and defendable reporting and interpretation.

What can go wrong in research conduct? When may a certain practice be claimed to violate the expected guidelines of good scientific practice?

Ethical issues in the field of publishing arise in terms of authorship, citation, peer reviewing, impact factors, duplicative publication, multiple submissions of one essay to different publishers, or publishing of controversial research. We will see how the virtues we compiled in the previous class can help solving conflicts that can occur in this part of science conduct, and may serve as a decision orientation when finding yourself in a respective situation.

Chemistry is – on several levels – teamwork, and as such embedded into a wide network of actors and stakeholders. This and the next class will focus on issues that arise in the context of collaborations and co-operations across these levels. We will see in this class what kind of conflicts can arise when chemists work with fellow chemists (including PI-student interaction), with other (natural) scientists, or with completely different scientists (social sciences, humanities).

In this class, we turn to two instances in the network that are outside the academic community: Politics (and its role for chemistry), and industry. Typical ethical issues arising in these contexts are conflicts of interests, academic freedom (in the light of contemporary science funding practices), and intellectual property right protection.

A special critical issue in chemical science and research is experiments that involve animals. This topic can’t be sufficiently covered with the virtue approach described in class 5. Arguments in favour and against animal and human experimentation as well as on procedural questions are more sophisticated and need deeper insights into ethical reasoning. Next to the introduction of the debate on animal testing and ethical dimensions of human subjects in research, this class will, therefore, also give an overview of utilitarian and deontological ethical thinking as well as bioethical considerations.

We will outline the ties between science and technology, and how progress and development are embedded
in the social and culture lifeworld of the people that it effects. Moreover, the class will introduce the contemporarily predominant social constructivist view of S&T progress by a short historical comparison with earlier understandings. This will help us understand why reflecting on normative dimensions of scientific activity is not trivial or waste of time, but an important element of research on how to make S&T progress sustainable and beneficial.

Now, we proceed to the next level: The impact of chemistry onto society and the environment. Here, the normative framework in the form of an ethos of science that has been used before is not sufficient. We will exploit a concept that
served as a normative orientation for science- and technology-related (S&T) decision-making and assessment in recent decades: sustainability.

It is now time to introduce the concept of responsibility in order to clarify the position of chemists in this
discourse. Many responsibility attributions (especially from the public), apparently, are not justified and mere accusations, others are justified but chemists might not be aware of them.

Almost all debates in the discourse on social and ethical implications of S&T are – in one way or another – about risk and uncertainty. Sustainability is at risk, values are at risk of being impacted or violated, responsibilities are attributed concerning the competence of dealing with risks and keeping them at a low level. Therefore, this topic deserves its own section in which we will shed light onto its definitions, its handling and its institutional implementation in the form of the precautionary principle.

After introducing concepts like sustainability, responsibility, risk, and the connection between scientific activity and ethical values, we still have a missing link: Why would this matter to chemists, and what is in their power to do about impact of chemical R&D on society and environment? In this class, I will introduce channels and established procedures for scientists like chemists to contribute their competence and expertise in the context of S&T governance and policy, in public stakeholder discourse, or in any form of S&T assessment.

While former classes pointed out the importance of communication and discourse as an element of the scientific method itself (classes 2 and 3), communication with peers and members of your scientific community (publications, conference talks) (class 6), with collaboration partners and practitioners from outside your own field (class 7), and with regulators, decision-makers and other stakeholders (class 14), this class wants to elaborate further on communication with non-scientists, the general public, often through channels of mass media.