21 August 2004

Ethics must be part of science training

By Jacqui McCarney

From throwing a cup of Ribena from the high chair, to finding how tall a lego tower can grow before it collapses, to marvelling at a jam jar of minnows, young children display all the attributes of a natural scientist. It is no surprise that primary school science is often the most popular subject on the curriculum. The awe and wonder of discovering eyes on the end of antennae on the garden snail and the hush surrounding the incubator as a class of six and seven year olds watch a tiny beak emerge from an egg means that this subject also becomes closely associated with a sense of reverence.

Reverence and intimacy with the natural world go hand in hand. Many scientists describe having deeply profound spiritual experience through their work. Einstein wrote, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed"

We could happily place our trust and the care of our eco-system in the safe hands of such respectful souls. However, nearly 200 years ago Mary Shelley warned against the dangers of complacency - 'Frankenstein' dramatically spelt out the horrors resulting from the clever scientist whose sole pursuit is a blinkered obsession with knowledge. Today, public trust in science is at an all time low. From nanotechnology, animal experimentation to GM's, the public has grown suspicious and cynical. When scientists seem divorced from the effects of what they do it is not surprising that the public become distrustful.

Today, scientists may invent or discover thing that are capable of wiping out the human race and it is only after the work is completed that we attempt to put restrictions on their use. By this time it is often too late, the "Pandora's Box" of nuclear and biological weapons, human cloning, GM's and climate change are a constant threat.

It is essential that we sacrifice some areas of knowledge as too abhorrent to research - science does not need to always be expanding. As Einstein again said "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius-and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction". If the rule of science is that knowledge is all, without ethical or environmental considerations, then it is time we changed the rule.

Science for Global Responsibility (SGR) has done just that. It is an organization of about 600 UK scientists supported by many eminent names, most famously, Prof Stephen Hawking, whose aim is to promote "principles of openness, accountability, peace, social justice and environmental sustainability". They publish advice on ethical careers in science and offer support for those scientists who wish to retain their integrity and independence. Their work involves research, education and lobbying.

It is a depressing reflection on our education system that somewhere between the ages of 6 and 26 a student of science acquires a huge number of facts but loses a sense of reverence. An absence of a mature morality may go unnoticed by an examining board but may be very costly to humanity. It is incumbent on us to provide a richer more holistic education for our young scientists and to ensure that the integrity of both life and the scientific process is protected.

Political and commercial interests are a great threat to this integrity and are in danger of plucking the soul out of science. The level (estimated at 80%) at which scientific research is funded by big corporations, driven by the desire for profits and out of control economic growth, is becoming quite frightening. Dr David Kelly's tragic death illustrates the problems faced by scientists involved in work with high political and commercial stakes.

We need scientists who can see the moral and ethical issues, and are not prepared to accept funding from industries which are trying to grow to quickly at the expense of ethics.

There is no shortage of challenging and essential work from the global to the local. As the government's Chief Scientist has said several times climate change needs to be urgently tackled. But don't forget, we need sustainable and wholesome ways of ending world hunger - and not by GMs produced by greedy companies - we need new clean energy technologies, and we need to decommission our nuclear weapons and nuclear power stations.