Science and ethics

Right & wrong in research

Scientists rarely work by themselves, although scientific breakthrough may be credited for a single individual. When a scientist comes up with a new theory, many other scientists will empirically test it. Only after the scientific community accepts the theory, it will become recognized.

Even the most important scientists who have created paradigm shifts have not worked alone. Newton, one of the most brilliant physicists in the history of science, admitted he was only able to create his theory because many other scientists had made discoveries before him. "I was able to see further because I was standing on the shoulder of giants."

Hoping to become famous and make breakthrough discoveries scientists are sometimes tempted to use questionable methods. They may steal someone else's research data and ideas and take the credit. This happened for example in 1953 when James Watson and Francis Crick were credited for discovering the structure of the DNA, when in fact the credit should have gone to a brilliant female biologist Rosalind Franklin.

Franklin came up with the double helix structure based on X-ray images of the DNA. Her supervisor passed her data to Watson and Crick who at the time were also studying the DNA and realized Franklin was on the right track. In 1962 Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize for 'their' discovery. Franklin on the other hand was already dead. She died at the age of 38 due to radiation exposure she got from taking X-rays as part of her original research.

Right & wrong of new knowledge

Sometimes new knowledge can be misused. In 1905 as part of his research for Special Theory of Relativity Einstein realized that huge amounts of energy could be released from a small amount of matter. This idea is expressed in his famous equation E=mc2 (energy = mass times the speed of light squared). If one could split the nucleus of the atom a huge explosion would follow. A bomb based on this principle would be a devastating weapon.

In 1939 Nazi Germany started WW II and many were afraid Hitler might try to develop the nuclear bomb. Einstein among other German physicists who had escaped from Nazi Germany decided to send the US President Roosevelt a letter asking the USA to build atomic bomb before the Germans.

By 1945 the work was finished and immediately after that it was used against Japan killing around 200 000 people with only two bombs. Einstein was shocked. In 1954 just before he died he said "I made one great mistake in my life... when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made." Also J. R. Oppenheimer (both in the picture), who was in charge of the development of the nuclear bomb, regretted he had helped to bring about such a terrible weapon.

Thankfully the world has never experienced a nuclear war but it did experience the Cold War, a power stuggle between the two superpowers the USA and the USSR. The USA alone is estimated to have spent over $ 10 trillion on nuclear arms during the Cold War (1945 - 1990). What could have been achieved if this money would have been spent on infrastructure, health care, education and medical research?

Right & wrong in science today

Genetic research is a modern area of study that raises many ethical questions. For example, for gene therapies it is sometime necessary to harvest stem cells from human embryos. Is it right to harvest these cells, even if it is done to cure someone? The embryo could develop into a healthy baby.

To study human genes researchers have fertilized eggs that contain both human and animal DNA. Is producing hybrid fetuses morally right? Are we playing god when we conduct such experiments? Some hybrid animals that have been created by researches are quite bizarre like a mouse with a human ear. Some genetically manipulated animals are used to produce medicine, for example genetically manipulated cows that produce insulin for diabetics.

Probably the most heated debate is over genetically manipulated crops. Scientists have improved qualities of some plants so that they grow better or produce greater harvests. Nobody knows if eating such foods that uses such plants poses a health risk for humans, and nobody knows for sure how such crops may alter natural evolution. The debate is over if genetically manipulated food should be allowed or not.

However the advancement of genetic research holds much promise. In 2003 researchers managed to map out entire human DNA. We now are at verge of understanding the genetic basis for many diseases, and with genetic manipulation possibly curing them. For example couples could be screened so they know what risk they have to give births to a baby with a hereditary disease. If the risk is great they could opt to have a test tube baby that has been screened not to carry faulty genes, or through genetic manipulation the faulty gene could be replaced by a healthy one before planting the egg in the womb.

The pursuit of new knowledge and technologies forces us to face new ethical questions. Through rational and balanced arguments we may be able to come to wise judgments regarding the use of new knowledge and technologies even when it is impossible to predict all the consequences these may bring about.