On Ethics

As a scientist--wherever you are working--how often do you make the time to think about ethical issues? I'm not thinking so much of plagiarism or the alteration of data--we all know that those behaviors are unethical--but about the possibility that your research, say, into the mechanisms of viral replication might one day be co-opted and used to propagate a lethal biological weapon. Or that your efforts to further miniaturize electronic devices could create self-replicating nanomachines that devastate our environment. And what of the human genome project? What are the ethical considerations that must be applied in determining how to use all of that information to make medical decisions?

Chances are that with all the work you have to get through each day, it is hard to focus much energy on these and other "great debates" in science and society. But there is a danger in letting that happen. If we all blink at the same time, humanity could find itself in serious trouble.

It is for this reason that Next Wave intends to bring you--over the next several months--a series of essays, features, and stories that focus on ethical questions in science. We set the scene this week in a series of interviews with prominent scientists in the life sciences, physics, and computer technology.

We begin with Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. Collins spoke at length with Next Wave campus representatives Trinnia Simmons and Judy Stenger about the evolution of his career, his take on the current job market for biologists, and--most importantly, perhaps--the ethical implications of the human genome project. When, for instance, should knowledge gained from the sequencing effort be applied to the development of new diagnostic tests for genetic diseases? When should these tests be used? And who should make these decisions?

Next Wave writer Melissa Mertl questioned Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health, during a "one-on-one" organized last week by the Gene Media Forum. Varmus does not believe that we need to worry unduly about the creation of new biological weapons, but instead suggests that we focus on the development of rapid diagnostic tests for existing threats like anthrax and smallpox. Varmus acknowledges, nevertheless, that we should pursue political strategies to minimize the likelihood of bioterrorism.

Contacted by e-mail, Bill Joy, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems and author of " Why the Future Does Not Need Us" in the April issue of Wired, tells Next Wave he disagrees strenuously with Varmus's assessment. Joy argued in Wired and in a 5 May public lecture held at the National Science Foundation (NSF) that the most immediate threat is that the instantaneous and unrestrained distribution of information--the raw material of future breakthroughs, beneficial or harmful--via the Internet will inevitably put the tools of destruction into the hands of delusional people. "Can we survive our technologies?" Joy asks.

Faced with these dilemmas, what are we to do?

Joseph Rotblat, a participant in the Manhattan Project of the 1930s and early 1940s, echoed Joy's concerns during an interview conducted by Mertl last year. Although Rotblat acknowledged that focusing on ethics might be detrimental to one's career, he feels passionately that it is every scientist's obligation to respond to the 1955 appeal of Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein that we "remember our humanity, and forget the rest."

And to encourage research scientists to consider seriously the ethical implications of their work, the National Human Genome Research Institute, which Collins heads, and other funding agencies have been developing grant programs in ethics. Some of these are described by Next Wave writer Vid Mohan-Ram in this week's release.

Joy goes much further. "The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge," Joy wrote in Wired. At the NSF lecture, Joy said he now refuses to work in the field of nanotechnology, and although he admits he is unqualified to work in genetics, he implied that he would refrain from working in that field as well.

These are grand ideas, but are they realistic? Can any one person really prevent a new kind of scientific arms race? Do the benefits of scientific breakthroughs outweigh the risks? With scientific competition so intense, can we scientists afford to take the time to consider the potential uses of our research? Can we afford not to?

The Next Wave editorial team keeps coming back to these questions, and we hope that you will too. Can Rotblat and Joy's proposal that we take "personal responsibility" work? Let us know what you think.

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