The Human Condition (1): Hannah Arendt

British Ethical Code for Scientists

Having spoken the other week about Ethics of Science, I note that the UK has just announced a seven part Ethical Code for Scientists:

  1. Act with skill and care, keep skills up to date
  2. Prevent corrupt practice and declare conflicts of interest
  3. Respect and acknowledge the work of other scientists
  4. Ensure that research is justified and lawful
  5. Minimise impacts on people, animals and the environment
  6. Discuss issues science raises for society
  7. Do not mislead; present evidence honestly

I learned about this from Ann at Purse Lip Square Jaw. She asks:

Personally, I struggle to see how scientific authority is under serious threat from lay people - it's still scientists telling the rest of us what they should do and not the other way around - but I appreciate how a manoeuvre like this opens up the opportunity to debate what science is, and should be.

Thoughts welcome.


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I think this is a great idea, but it has to used carefully. I'm sure the majority of scientists already follow similar practices, but just as with any group of humans there will always be extremists. A formal set of ethics provides a platform for the majority to identify the bad and the good - a common definition as it were.

As with most human endeavour it is vague and open to interpretation, but what isn't?

The underlying worry is that cutting edge science may appear to flaunt aspects of this code. In those situations it wouldn't necessarily be correct to use the code as reasoning for censure. Some kind of judicial body might be able to act reasonably upon it. Presumably such bodies already exist within government/society though?

It isn't always obvious how certain discoveries will be used and sometimes the obvious uses might be very undesirable. Then there's the fact that most scientific discoveries are fundamental and therefore it isn't really possible to hold them back anyway.

Take nuclear power as an example. The obvious reaction to any sane person is NO!!!! But what part did nuclear power play in keeping the peace these last few decades? What part does it continue to play? Would it have been possible to globally prevent research in that field? What would happen if only one country in the world had access to it? What would happen to the environment if power generation was totally reliant on fossil fuels, what would that do to the economy and standard of living? 17% of the world’s electricity comes from nuclear power, how easy would it be to replace that with renewable sources? Does nuclear power hold back research in renewable power? Isn't nuclear fission a stepping-stone on the way to nuclear fusion? Is it a temporary measure that will keep earth's industry moving when we run out of fossil fuel and until renewable/fusion energy sources can replace it?

Nuclear weapons are rightly seen as evil and many restrictions are in place. Therefore the military simply moves down a different avenue i.e. Russian and US development of nightmarishly powerful fuel-air bombs. Will that research have positive benefits?

I think science does often need the benefit of the doubt. We do need to explore how this universe works and not get stuck in too many dead ends.

Under this ethical system would GM food research have been allowed? The knee jerk reaction to GM food is a definite NO! Its use has been linked to increases in asthma and allergies. The potential dangers are enormous. But how can something like that be held back, surely it cannot? The earth relies on a very small number of food crops, which are constantly under attack from evolving pests and disease. Traditional pesticides become less effective. GM food can be made resistant to such attacks. Are there natural alternatives though? Does GM research hold such investigation back? GM foods are often able to withstand harsher climates, give higher yields, contain extra nutrients and are disease resistant. That sounds like it would be ideal for use in the third world, but do the risks outweigh the benefits?

Science always has its disasters and blind alleys. Looking back at history the evidence suggests we are far better off with it reasonably unconstrained (look at the standard of living and mortality rate a hundred years ago). Hopefully ethical guidelines could help limit the mistakes without restricting the rate of scientific discovery. I think the balance is firmly on the side of good when you look back over the last century.

Sorry for the rant, excellent post though, food for thought :)

Not a terribly snappy code, though. I'm sure they're fairly well formulated, but they could do with some sort of more structured approach or, uh, hook? That, and they seem a little vague. Even for a broad ethical code.

Pace Mark Featherstone, but the benefits of GM accrue not to the people but to those firms that produce the seed. Soon, everything you eat will be someone's intellectual property and you will pay them a royalty. This is really what the drive to genetically engineer everything in sight is about. The entire food chain will become someone's property. The patenting of life is anyway an obscenity, in my opinion.

And the 'ethical code' quoted above doesn't address the thing that worries me - the connection between science and commerce. The proportion of research funded by business is very high, especially in biology. How independent, then, can it be? What limit does it place on the questions you can ask, the answers you can find? Does it turn science into propaganda?

ps. hello Chris, haven't been reading lately due to moving, birth of first child and other such things. Good to see you and all your readers/commentators are still going strong though.

Mark: thanks for your rant here! A few random thoughts...

"17% of the world’s electricity comes from nuclear power, how easy would it be to replace that with renewable sources?"

Well in this case the problem is economic not scientific. We already have the science to provide all of the world's power from renewable sources, simply from solar powered steam generators placed in desert locations. The problem in this case is principally that these systems do not make a profit except over a very long time scale and therefore don't look like a good investment.

Also, like Theo I think the problem with GM food comes in this attempt to own the intellectual property of life. I am all for the production of tougher strains of grain (which can be achieved without directly editing the genetic code, incidentally), but the firms that produce GM grains also modify the grain so that it is necessary for a new batch to be bought every year (rather than the farmer holding back a proportion of the crops to resow). Thus we are dealing with a profit motive, not a humanitarian issue.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Jack: I too thought they were a touch vague in the form presented here - but still, any ethical code is better than none right now! :)

Theo: Great to hear from you, and congratulations on your first born! I had been wondering about you, since I haven't heard from you in quite a while and your own blog has gone dead... glad to hear that life is keeping you busy! ;)

I share your concern here to some degree; do we really want science to be principally an economic tool? Could we change this even if we wanted to at this point? The pharmaceutical companies in the US give me great concern for how we are using science right now, but how to make a change is very hard to establish.

Best wishes!

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