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Misunderstanding Ethics and the purpose of this talk

It is interesting to read the comments this talk has elicited. People project onto the talk their own fears or beliefs. The talk has one purpose, and I suppose it has achieved that: it is to get people debating and thinking about the ethics of biotechnology. That is why, nowhere in the talk, do I give my own opinion as to correct answers; I want the viewer to ask themselves the questions.
On the other hand, some of the claims in the comments are pretty surprising. I am involved in quite a few biotechnological projects, so the idea that I am anti-technology or a Luddite borders on the absurd. When Craig Venter first decided to create his minimal genome, he hired my Center at Penn to examine the ethical issues involved, and the two articles were published side by side in Science. So is Craig Venter a Luddite because he was concerned about the ethics of biotechnology?
Science and ethics must go hand in hand. When they don't, science has done unconscionable things. All good scientists understand this, which is why top scientists generally support bioethics, and believe in the importance of incorporating ethical reflection into science and science education. The purpose of bioethics is not to stop science, but to make sure that it is both performed ethically (the history of human subject experimentation is scandalous) and that society, and scientists, carefully consider the best use of scientific funds and the direction of scientific inquiry.
As far as what is done in one's private lab, that too must be constrained by ethical standards. Just because a lab is private does not mean we should allow it to manufacture a virulent virus, do cruel experiments on animals, or release an engineered organism into the ecosystem. Science is part of society, and has no special purchase from which to excuse itself from the ethical reflection or standards that the rest of society is subject to.


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    Apr 12 2011: I think what scares us the most isn't what can be done but that it will be done. Regardless of a society's ethics there are always outliers (and even those in the mainstream) who will do the unethical. Paul mentions "the history of human subject experimentation is scandalous" and it will continue to be so. Whether it be politicians or unscrupulous media people, we have debated, talked and thought about many important aspect of our society both on a local and world wide scale and nothing has been accomplished other than a lot of hot air being blown around. The quesiton of ethics in science is moot because there is no one to report or enforce any code of conduct. This is more than apparent in the fact mentioned by Paul that most of the food we eat is bio-engineered and we the consumers of that food are not even told on the package. If they are hiding something, there is something to hide. And yet, Paul asks us to think about and debate ethical issues regarding bio-engineering? Why? So science can remain unethical? Science has hidden bio-engineered food on our plates and we are talking ethics after the fact? Before we can have any discussion on ethics, we first need to have the discussion on how to punish unethical behavior because if we refuse to do anything about unethical behavior then all this talk about ethics is just a bunch of hot air.
    • Apr 14 2011: While it may be true that many of the debates concerning ethical issues in biotechnology have had little to no effect, the fact remains that before we can punish those who are "unethical", we first have to establish what is or isn't ethical. The reason why the majority of our food is genetically manipulated without any protest is because we never actually drew the rather fine line between what is moral and what is immoral. Before we can decide how to punish unethical behavior, we first have to decide who needs to be punished, and to do that, we have to determine what actions should be punished, which goes back to the ethics debate that you consider so unnecessary. I would also love to see some reform in the system, to require companies to inform the consumers of whether or not their product is genetically engineered. But before we can write laws, we have to decide what exactly these laws should combat, and which practices by scientists should be encouraged or discouraged.
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        Apr 18 2011: I agree with Colin in that I feel that ethics are important to dscuss in order to determine which behaviors by scientists and companies should be punished. It would be rather difficult to go around stepping on the toes of the producers of genetically modified foods if we have not yet established that it is immoral to provide unlabled goods. In addition, it is also exceptionally difficult to know and regulate foods that we perceive to be genertically modified when plants cross breed, seeds travel, and the genes become mixed. Many organisim that are thought to be completely organic are in fact genetically modified and the regulation of these goods is more difficult than Colin suggests. Nevertheless, I fully believe that Mr. Crawley has made excellent points about the study of ethics and hope that you, Mr. Mihalko, take them into consideration.

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