Thursday, June 14, 2018

Thinking about science upon entering the field. Part III: Ethics and Responsibilities

Here is the third of a four-part series of posts by Tristan Cofer, a graduate student in chemical ecology here at Penn State.  He has been thinking about the profession he is being trained for, and the broader setting in which it is taking place, and into which he will have a place:

Growing up in a medical household, I remember being more than just a little impressed by, what seemed to me, to be the many responsibilities that physicians were expected to have towards their patients. Serving on call every third or fourth night, working weekends and holidays, and, not to mention, the years spent in school or as a resident and intern, seemed to me to go beyond the so–called Hippocratic imperative to ‘first, do no harm’, and instead to border on an ethical mandate that one should always strive to do the most good. I am no doubt, engaging in some hero worship here, and I concede that the extent to which this mandate actually informs a physician’s conduct (much less whether it really exists) is debatable. However, I would argue that for many people, myself included, ‘good medicine’, by and large, means medicine that does the most good.

This relationship between healthcare and ethical responsibility is perhaps unsurprising given the influence that physicians have over our, and our loved ones’, mental and physical wellbeing. Simply put, we want to know that the people that we trust with the things that are most important to us are indeed trustworthy. That being said, I find it somewhat curious that, by comparison, we in the scientific community are not held to a similar ethical standard. This, to me, begs the often-unconsidered, if not outwardly ignored, question: What are our social responsibilities as scientists?

Science, like medicine, is embedded in the culture(s) in which it is practiced. It is a humanistic enterprise in that we as humans undertake it, and like all everything we do, it comes with baggage that oftentimes remains unchecked. I wouldn’t claim here that scientists give no consideration to the social frameworks in which they work (that would be both unfair and untrue); only that, based on my own experiences thus far in graduate school, discussions about a scientist’s social responsibilities have been mostly self-interested, concerning internal matters such as research ethics and the like. These conversations are no doubt valuable, in that we need to know that our colleagues are doing work that we can trust and build on; however, they hardly encourage one to think beyond their rather limited responsibilities to our chosen profession.

How much, for instance, should we expect our research to reflect the public’s values and interests? Because research is typically funded by tax-payer dollars, one might argue that, by extension, it is also carried out in their name. Is it, therefore, ethically reprehensible to conduct research that does not directly benefit the public in some way? Are we not also obligated to set research objectives with minority or special interests groups in mind? What happens when our interests conflict with the public’s? For example, can we defend using public funding to conduct research in evolutionary biology, knowing that some groups vehemently oppose teaching evolutionary theory?

Moreover, how should we deal with situations in which our internal responsibilities to ‘Science’ and our external responsibilities to the public are at odds with each other? Is it permissible to develop technologies that can quite literally change the world, without considering the people with whom we share it? Is this even possible? Are we even the best candidates to answer these questions, or should we consult ‘outsiders’ from the humanities and elsewhere in our discussions concerning the questions mentioned above? These discussions may seem like an unnecessary hindrance to scientific advancement, and perhaps they are. But maybe, that’s what we need.

Admittedly, I might be barking up the wrong tree here. Yes, Science has the potential to greatly benefit and harm the public, but so too do politics, business, and any other enterprise with deep pockets and a global reach. As a friend, much smarter than myself, once told me, maybe ‘Science is no more than a good way to keep smart people off the street’. At the end of the day, we all need to make a living, and conversations like these have the potential to make that harder to do. For better or worse, there is considerable pressure (both external and self-imposed) on scientists to do whatever they need to in order to bring in grants, publish to get tenure and advance their careers, and appease the powers-that-be to protect their self-interests. Most people either don’t want to, or can’t, risk rocking the proverbial boat—especially when there is little precedent to do so.

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