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Science and Public Responsibility

Paul Grobstein's picture

Perhaps the oldest and most persistently problematic ethical ambiguity in contemporary views of science relates to the question of the degree of responsibility that scientists have for the social consequences of their activities. Conceiving of science as the pursuit of "Truth", or of short-term human well-being, permits scientists a posture either of moral and ethical "neutrality" or of assumed virtue neither carefully thought through nor genuinely earned. Recognizing science as a process of the continual collective rewriting of stories requires instead, as I think appropriate, that the "players" be continually wrestling with the justifications (or lack thereof) both for the institution of playing and for the consequences of their own doing so ... A Vision of Science (and Science Education) in the 21st Century, 2003

... research on the brain, like nuclear physics and molecular genetics, creates both opportunities and risks for humanity sufficiently great so that special attention needs to be paid to them, both by researchers and by the public at large ... The Brain and Social Well Being, Followup, 2007

It is sometimes said that advances in empirical science not only necessarily alter our sense of humanness but invariably demean it, that Galileo removed our privileged position at the center of the universe, that Darwin eliminated our privileged position among living things, that Freud challenged our control over even ourselves. One might read the history of empirical research on the brain and make predictions about its future in the same light: that we will gain practical knowledge useful in various ways but find ourselves to have even less of a meaningful role in our own lives, to say nothing of in the universe we inhabit

I see Galileo, Darwin, Freud, and, most particularly, the current and projected impact of empirical research on the brain in a quite different light. The earth may not be the center of the universe, and we may indeed, along with our fellow living organisms, be an accident of an ongoing evolutionary process lacking either an architect or an objective. While this may frustrate efforts to derive meaning from things outside ourselves, it simultaneously frees us to create meaning from within ourselves ...

Science as collectively "getting it less wrong" raises the intriguing possibility of thinking of science itself as a moral system, one which has ... a substantive role to play in the ongoing evolution of the human story of meaning and purpose ... The Brain as a Learner/Inquirer/Creator: Some Implications of its Organization for Individual and Social Well-Being, 2007

A recent senior thesis seminar day in Biology got me thinking about time, about cultural change and about my own life trajectory. I was born in the aftermath of the second world war, with issues of science and public responsibility all around me because of the development of the atomic bomb. And I began my professional education as a scientist in the midst of the Vietnam War, with isues of science and public responsibility again very much in the air. I remember, as a graduate student in the early 1970's, giving impassioned talks about the responsibilities that scientists had to assure that the products of their work were not misused.

What's interesting is what has changed, and what hasn't, in the world and in myself. As the borders between basic and applied research, between the academy and commerce, have blurred, the terrain has shifted from one where scientists needed to be reminded to think about the potential impact of their work on the world at large to one where many scientists start with quite deliberate intentions of impacting on the world at large. And from one in which much science was done out of relatively pure curiosity to one where at least as much is done because of, or at least in awareness of, the potential for significant personal gain, financial and otherwise. The need for some kind of professional code of ethics for science is, in consequence, even greater now than it was when I was a graduate student. So too, with the ever increasing impact of science on culture, is a clearer understanding of the morality of science itself.

In thinking about these cultural changes, I'm a little taken aback by how little explicit attention I have myself given to the issues that seemed so important to me as a graduate student, and continue to seem so now. At the same time, there is an interesting pattern in the thinking I've been doing for years about the brain, one that suggests that issues of scientific ethics and morality have continued to be very much on my mind, implicitly if not explicitly, and driven much of the more explicit directions of my inquiries. Its nice to be reminded of this by student work, of the kind linked to below. And even more encouraging that students are increasingly inclined to engage with concrete and important issues of scientific ethics and morality. Perhaps the indirect and more abstract approach I've taken to problems of scientific ethics and morality can contribute to the new thinking increasingly being undertaken.

Student Papers

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