Tuesday, 19 October 2010

In the neutral zone: is there an ethical side to science?

"I promise to work for a better world, where science and technology are used in socially responsible ways. I will not use my education for any purpose intended to harm human beings or the environment. Throughout my career, I will consider the ethical implications of my work before I take action. While the demands placed upon me may be great, I sign this declaration because I recognize that individual responsibility is the first step on the path to peace."

The above is the text of a ‘Hippocratic Oath for Scientists’ proposed by the physicist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Sir Joseph Rotblat in Science in 1999 (1). Rotblat, a British physicist who grew up in Poland and moved to England just before the Second World War, was originally part of the Manhattan Project that created the atom bomb. When in 1944 it became obvious that the Germans were themselves not capable of building such a device, Rotblat was the only member of the group – which included many of the finest physicists of the 20th century such as Niels Bohr and Richard Feynman – who decided he no longer wanted to be part of the creation of such a powerful weapon of mass destruction. Throughout the rest of his life, he advocated that scientists had the responsibility of protecting the environment and humankind and should be main players in the quest for world peace.

Rotblat did not see science as amoral; he felt that scientists had a clear responsibility to the public and if the results of certain lines of research could lead to adverse effects for humanity and the environment, scientists should decide against conducting those experiments. But many have argued that, while the misuse of scientific knowledge can certainly have dangerous consequences, the scientific process itself is, and has to be, ultimately neutral.

Arguably the strongest advocate for such a position is Lewis Wolpert, Emeritus Professor in Cell and Developmental Biology at University College London. In 2000, in a published exchange of letters (2) between Wolpert and the environmentalist and founder of The Ecologist, Edward Goldsmith, he argued that “it is the very nature of science that it is not possible to predict what will be discovered, or how these discoveries could be applied”, and suggests that one should not confuse knowledge gained by scientific research with the (technical) application that follows. While he also argues that “scientists have neither the right nor the skill to make ethical decisions about the application of their work”, he does suggest that scientists have a responsibility to provide the public with the tools to make informed decisions about the application of science: they should explain their research to the public, explore possible consequences – positive and negative – of their scientific results, and make sure that the research is trustworthy (3). This then would allow for informed debates amongst policy makers and the general public such that society as a whole would be involved in decisions as to how scientific progress is applied.

The debate about the ethical responsibilities of scientists came to the fore again in May this year when the controversial American scientist, Dr Craig Venter, announced that researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute, a private organisation run by a board of which Dr Venter is President, had been able to create ‘synthetic life’ - a notion disputed by some scientists who say that rebooting a living cell with synthetic DNA is not equal to the creation of new life - by replicating DNA from a bacterial cell artificially and replacing the original DNA of the cell with the artificial DNA (4).

While the technical advancements of this study are largely undisputed, it has been the ethical questions surrounding this research that have caught the headlines. Some of the more controversial reactions to Venter’s research came from Professor Julian Savulescu of the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, who is quoted in the Times Online saying that “Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity’s history, potentially peeking into its destiny”, and even goes on to say that “he [Craig Venter] is going towards the role of a God: creating artificial life that could never have existed naturally … the risks are also unparalleled. These could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable.” David King, director of the Human Genetics Alert watchdog also criticised Venter for playing God: “what is really dangerous is these scientists’ ambitions for total and unrestrained control over nature.” Although these statements seem extreme and guided by emotion rather than reason, they do illustrate an important issue: that there is a discrepancy in understanding of scientific research between scientists and lay-audiences – even highly educated ones – that needs to be addressed.

This research has also grabbed the attention of environmentalist groups who are calling for a moratorium on the release of any synthetic life forms into the environment. They argue that artificial life forms may threaten existing wild life and could lead to hastened extinction, resulting in diminished biodiversity. At the UN Conventional on Biological Diversity held in Kenya at the end of May this year, the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) - an international civil society organisation that researches the impact of new technologies on marginalised peoples and is based in Ottawa, Canada - helped formulate a ‘de facto moratorium’ on synthetic biology, which calls for a total ban on any experiment where artificial life forms are released into the wild (5). Environment ministers of the 193 member countries of the Biological Convention will meet in Japan later this year to decide whether to adopt such a moratorium.

Browsing through the popular media coverage, it might seem as if Rotblat would not have approved of Craig Venter’s experiments; however, as Venter himself has pointed out, the ability to create synthetic life allows us to start understanding the function of the fundamental components of life. This may ultimately lead to cures for genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis and Alzheimer’s disease by replacing damaged DNA with synthetic DNA that does not have mutations. The environment may benefit significantly too. Synthetic cells may be used to develop synthetic fuels that could address our need for fossil fuels and the large amount of carbon emission in our atmosphere. Such technologies therefore have huge potential for business; BP and Exxon Mobil are already large funders of Dr. Venter’s research.

To a young scientist, it might seem quite straightforward to sign up to Rotblat’s proposed oath, but what would it practically mean to adhere to this code? How do you decide where your personal responsibilities lie? Are you always aware the possible effects of your research? These are particularly difficult questions to answer, especially in a scientific world where high profile publications are ever more important as a token for research money. 

As Wolpert argues, scientific discovery is not necessarily predictable, and the suggestion that controversial results can be avoided by not carrying out such experiments seems na├»ve. Furthermore, while some findings may be used in harmful ways, often their benefits far outweigh their risks. For example, 14% of the world’s electricity needs (30% in the EU alone) are provided for by nuclear power (6,7). Thus, despite its major image problem, this positive use of nuclear fission is of vital importance in today’s society.

While the argument for the scientific process being neutral seems well founded, it is harder to conceive exactly how the application of science should happen democratically. There are only a few scientific minds in the current UK parliament. The crucial question is whether we would really want to leave decisions about the application of synthetic life or genetically modified crops up to politicians or groups of activists. Many comments on Venter’s study came from philosophers, and they could potentially play a pivotal role in democratising the application of scientific progress. In the current era, where major scientific discoveries follow each other in rapid succession, there is a need for ethicists to guide scientists and policy makers on how to use controversial results responsibly. This need is beginning to be widely acknowledged and has already led to the founding of numerous centres dealing with the ethical side of scientific discovery worldwide. Scientists could, or maybe even should, play a major role in this process by helping ethicists and policy makers understand the science behind discovery.

While it may seem that the media increasingly represents scientific advances as lead to increasing a threats to our existence, such fears are by no means new. An image of the “mad scientist”, tinkering with the natural world, can be seen as far back as Aristophanes’ comedy ‘The Clouds’. Mary Shelley’s famous 19th century novel ‘Frankenstein’ expressed the uneasy feelings many people might have about science. However, one has to bear in mind that controversial advances have always led to criticism and ethical questions, but equally, controversial advances in science as well as literature, art and society, has made our society the way it is today.

1.    Rotblat, J. A (1999). Hippocratic Oath for Scientists. Science 286: 1475
2.    Wolpert, L. and Goldsmith, E. (2000). Letter exchange: Is science neutral? The Ecologist 30 No. 3 (May).
3.    Wolpert, L. (1999). Is science dangerous? Nature 398: 281-282.
4.    Gibson, D.G., Glass, J.I., Lartigue, C. et al., (2010). Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome. Science 329: 52-56.
5.    Etc Group (2010). Synthia is Alive … and Breeding: Panacea or Pandora's Box? http://www.etcgroup.org/en/node/5142
6.    International Energy Agency (2009). Key world energy statistics. http://www.iea.org/publications/free_new_Desc.asp?PUBS_ID=1199.
7.    European Commission (2009). Eurostat. http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/portal/page/portal/product_details/publication?p_product_code=KS-SF-09-055.

This article appeared in the Science and Society section of the Michaelmas Term issue of 'Phenotype', the termly science magazine from the Oxford University Biochemical Society. Here you can read the magazine its entirety.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Finally ...

I know - months have gone past without fresh words on this blog. I have not been entirely idle during this period, but few of my energies have been directed towards writing (evidently!).

Moreover, I have also recently been moonlighting online elsewhere and have just posted a piece on Science Oxford Online provoked by the pointless nature-nurture argument on a recent edition of The Today Programme following the announcement of a possible genetic component to ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

This comes as part of my increasing involvement with Science Oxford, a charitable organisation for the promotion of local science to the general public and also more generally to educate and inspire children and adults about science from across the globe.

For the younger generation, they provide what is called a "Discovery Zone", essentially a large, educative and interactive play pen, which provides seemingly hours of distraction and fun while also quietly demonstrating some of the laws of magnetism and gravity and the like.

While many adults also seem to gain as much enjoyment from these toys as their children, Science Oxford also organises events more specifically tailored to their age group on Thursday evenings. Over the past year, I have helped out at talks on topics ranging from sustainable farming to Alzheimer's disease via a celebration of the contribution of black scientists. They even allowed me an evening to consider how memory and identity interact. For those of you not in Oxford, many of the events are streamed and archived on the website and can be downloaded as video podcasts via iTunes (search for Science Oxford in the iTunes store). Their recent event on everything you always wanted to know about sex (whether or not you were afraid to ask) should be up there shortly and there will soon be talks on the universe and the atom (quite some change in scale!) along with a seasonal take on the science of fireworks.

But don't worry, Science Oxford has not entirely taken over my life and I shan't be forsaking this blog entirely.  I hope shortly to write about some of the science that has caught my eye over the summer months.  Without a 4 month delay this time, I promise.