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Ethical issues at Canadian science fairs

In my previous blog, ‘Ethical lessons from a friendly octopus’, I described how I became involved with the Youth Science Canada Ethics Committee. In this blog I will look closer at what happened in Sacramento and how ethics are dealt with at Canadian regional science fairs.

The Sacramento science fair

A science fair project with the title 'Race and IQ' was on display at a Sacramento science fair recently, and it led to a lot of discussion by officials and politicians after it had provoked outrage from some students, parents and staff. The project was on view with other projects for the first two days of the fair. It was only removed the third day after judging was complete.

Questions arose. How could the teacher have been evaluating and giving feedback on this project since early last October (as alleged)? Why was it approved to be displayed at the fair?
The question sent to me was: could such a thing happen at one of our Canadian science fairs? While it is not possible to rule out any controversy at a science fair, in Canada we have a lot of checks and balances to ensure a quality experience for both our young scientists and the public.

Youth Science Canada protocols

For more than 50 years, Canadian science fairs have been held under of the umbrella organization Youth Science Canada (YSC). As part of the affiliation process, Canadian regional science fairs are required to follow, enforce, and distribute to local schools and students the rules and regulations as defined in YSC policies. Additionally, all science fair regionals must have an ethics committee in place. The regional ethics committees make the majority of decisions regarding their own fairs. They also make use of advice and rulings from the national ethics committee for anomalous cases.

“Ideally these policies are consulted prior to beginning work on the project”

After I received the link to the Sacramento controversy, I sought the thoughts of my science fair colleagues across the country. Collectively, we took a close look at our policies and guidelines. Crucially, the preamble of our code of conduct requires individual ‘responsibilities and obligations’ to ensure ‘an environment free of abuse and harassment to protect individuals' physical and psychological integrity and preserve their dignity’.

Could an ethical lapse happen at a Canadian science fair? Although adult supervision is required, guiding students to make their own ethical decisions is the best outcome. I advocated in a 2012 blog that educators incorporate ethics into the way they teach scientific thinking. At that time, I asked, ‘Why not teach students to consider ethics from the start, rather than having them try to justify their experiments after the fact?’ Science fair participants have become very good at identifying variables and stating a hypothesis, since these are rewarded in the marks given at the competition. Maybe it is time to designate a few points for an ethical statement which demonstrates that students have considered their research from an ethical perspective, even if it is only to state that they are doing an extremely low risk project.

Science fair ethics committees will always need to review the projects coming to their fairs to ensure no controversial projects are on display; however, with teachers encouraging student self-awareness and reporting, the rejection of a project will be much less likely.

Links of interest:
          Ethical lessons from a friendly octopus
          YSC Code of Conduct
          My 2012 blog

You can also find me on

Ethical issues at Canadian science fairs

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