How Much Ethics Should Young Scientists Know?

"How much has the lifestyle of young scientists changed because they now have to be aware of ethical issues?" asked Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, as she opened the panel discussion that closed the 2001 Scientists for the New Century competition (see sidebar below).

Having spent a year celebrating Britain's future scientific stars, it was time to "look at the world these young scientists are going to be entering." So are today's scientists expected to spend as much time agonising over their moral choices as they do on experiments, or do they take ethics in their stride?

The angst felt by many in the scientific arena "reflects a widespread feeling that science has become an ethical minefield," suggested panellist Simon Best, CEO of Ardana Bioscience. It's a "side effect of the collapse in public trust in science," said Best, who also claimed that "many of the mines are not truly ethical." His advice to young scientists was that they should apply two tests to their work, a values test and a communication test. Among the values-related questions that Best said scientists should ask of their research are 'Why am I doing this?' 'What are the benefits?' 'Do the benefits outweigh the risks?' and 'Who is paying for the work?' Having sorted out their answers to these values questions, scientists should also be prepared to communicate their reasoning to the general public and indeed to "actively seek opportunities to have that kind of dialogue." At the moment, such communication "too often happens in defensive mode," said Best, who feels that scientists would be better off if they were proactive in talking about what they do and why they do it.

Scientists for the New Century

Begun 3 years ago, Scientists for the New Century is an annual lecture series and competition that aims to highlight the "best of young British Science," according to Royal Institution director Professor Susan Greenfield. Sponsored by The Times and Novartis, each month a scientist at the start of his or her career is selected to give a public lecture at the prestigious Royal Institution. In true RI style this is not merely a talk, but a demonstration--think Christmas Lectures--so participants are selected not just on the strength of their science but also on their ability to communicate it. The overall winner of the 2001 competition, Armand Leroi from London's Imperial College, received a cash prize of £1500 and an invitation to lecture in Australia. Contact the RI if you would like to take part in the 2002 competition.

As a tissue engineer panellist, Kevin Shakesheff, professor of advanced drug delivery at the University of Nottingham, is well-used to talking about controversial research. Shakesheff believes that it is crucial for scientists to "go out into the communities that we're part of and explain in clear manner and open manner" why they do science. But at the same time he'd like to put "more onus on society" and says that we "need better feedback mechanisms" so that the public can engage in the debate. He cited the example of the Body Shop, which, by producing toiletries and cosmetics without animal testing, provided a choice that launched a consumer revolution. We need to "make sure that type of choice is available whenever possible," he said, which means that scientists need to pursue a variety of research avenues. For example, "we shouldn't just develop [embryonic stem cells] at the expense of looking at other areas," he warns. Even if such research is successful there will be people who are not able to share in the associated medical breakthroughs, perhaps because of their religious beliefs, so "science has to take that into account and ensure diverse platforms so we don't exclude people."

"Do we expect more nowadays from scientists than we used to in the past?" asked the final panel member, Michael Rice, one time environmental science postdoc, ethicist, and Church of England priest. Now professor of science education at the Institute of Education, Rice believes the answer is "in some ways, yes," stating that the issues they face are more contentious now. One hundred years ago people struggled with questions that have now been resolved, such as whether women should have the right to vote and whether slavery was justifiable. "In that sense ethics is like science--we do move forward and reach consensus," he said. But things are more complex for us. In the Victorian age the questions were mainly about how we should treat other people. Now we are concerned about how we interact with animals, the environment, and even whole ecosystems. Complicating the issue still further is the fact that "there is no longer a single shared moral consensus." Rice finds this "moral fragmentation" to be very unsettling. "We do need more people to be more ethically aware," he asserted, "but it is getting harder all the time."

An Ethical Career in Science and Technology?

Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) has recently published a booklet, An Ethical Career in Science and Technology?, which can be downloaded free from the SGR Web site. As well as focussing on some particular areas of concern, such as the environment, military research, genetics, and animal experimentation, the booklet provides an overview of some of the issues that scientists should ponder before choosing their area of research or employer. Based largely on testimonials from SGR members, it provides a good starting point if you've never really given the ethical side of science much thought before.

So if engaging with the public is crucial, how can scientists do it better? One method suggested by Shakesheff was to hold referenda on controversial topics, such as stem cell research. "Personally I don't really trust my MP to speak for me on some of these issues," he explained. But Rice was not at all keen on that idea. "It's much more difficult to educate all of us than 600 MPs," he pointed out, arguing that referenda only work when the issue is simple and clear-cut. Moreover, he said, ethical consensus is often very provisional, particularly early in the life of a new technology. Suppose, he suggested, we had had a referendum on in vitro fertilisation 30 years ago, the result might well have been a 'No.' And yet today over 1 million children have been conceived using the technique, and the public's attitude is quite accepting.

But although society may eventually reach a consensus on even the (seemingly) most controversial of topics, Shakesheff pointed out that ethical decisions will, ultimately, always be very personal. Therefore it is up to every scientist, and indeed every member of society, to decide what works for him or her.

Above all, scientists should not be limited by society in the research questions that they are allowed to ask, said Best. Instead we should "pay attention to the tools and methods that scientists want to use" to investigate those questions. "Whether we like it or not," he pointed out, "human beings are the most powerful species on the planet," and we should not allow guilt to get in the way of using science as a force for good.

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