Science and the ethical responsibilities of scientists
The advent of discoveries that have the potential to destroy the human race has led to public debate about the nature of science and the responsibilities of scientists. It was assumed in the past that the role of the scientist was simply to research and then educate about that discovery, leaving the moral responsibility for applied science to government and the public. This has proved problematic because not every government will operate in the interests of humanity as a whole. For this reason, self-governance of scientists is required to ensure that discoveries that are made for the good of humanity. The solution, although not ideal, provides the best hope of ensuring that discoveries are ethical.
Society demands high standards of scientists (Cicerone, 2010). Commenting upon leaked emails from the East Anglia University Climate Science department, Cicerone (2010) lamented that the resultant scandal had diminished the public’s trust in science, with many believing that scientists falsified or withheld data. The case reignited public debate about precisely what scientists are responsible for both as specialists and citizens. These responsibilities and roles are briefly considered and outlined in this essay, together with the ways in which government can manage discoveries.
Uchii (1998) notes that the discussion about general responsibilities and duties is part of the philosophical branch called ethics. Scientists have two sets of ethics to operate within, as citizens and specialists. The responsibilities of citizens are governed by societal rules that set out professional duties, but these are generally regulated by individual’s internal belief systems of what is the right thing to do.
Determining what is exactly the right thing to do as a citizen, human being or as a professional is not always clear. This is especially true when the interests of nations and cultures compete with the moral duty of individuals. What is the right thing to do when a decision is made on the basis of duty to country, but at the expense of a duty to humanity or science as a whole?
The ethical compromises made by individuals was illustrated by the Hwang stem cell research scandal. Dr Hwang Woo Suk, a South Korean veterinary scientist, claimed to have created stem cells (Hong, 2008). It was thought that this important discovery could lead to a breakthrough cure for diseases and enable South Korea to achieve financial and scientific parity with advanced nations.
It was later found that Hwang had unethically harvested eggs from female researchers by forcing them to donate. Hong (2008) described public polling that showed over 86 per cent of a sample Korean population did not see a problem with the way the eggs were harvested, even though the process violated biomedical and personal ethics. Quite apart from Hwang’s dereliction of moral duty, as a scientist and a human being, the results of polling illustrated how national interest subverted the moral duties of South Korean politicians, the public, journalists and other local scientists.
After Hwang resigned from official positions, positive local media coverage ensured that he received private funding to enable him to continue his research (Hong, 2008). Hwang was later discredited further when it was found that evidence submitted in his research was intentionally fabricated. As a result of the nation’s support, the scandal became not only a disgrace for Hwang, but for the whole country.
Examining the responsibilities that scientists have as specialists, Lewis Wolpert suggests they are only responsible to ensure their research is reliable and the public are informed about the implications of their discoveries (Wolpert, 1993). The Franck Report (1945), written by a group of nuclear physicists...
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