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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 18 2011: "Science and ethics must go hand in hand. When they don't, science has done unconscionable things."

    And I agree. Ethics is what grounds scientists to their feet of morality. As we have seen in the past, reason can be used for the unreasonable - or even for the atrocious - and we must always remain vigilant and keep "science" within the realm of con"science".

    Despite that, however, we must also remain vigilant and keep ethics in check. While science has done unconscionable things, unethical ethics has stunted and hindered beneficial science. Logic must be used to reason - to decide what is reasonable - and prevent the dogmas of old Christianity from hindering future scientific progress. While I am a church-goer, I believe that faith or religion should not interfere in the matters of science (and to an extent, political legislation regarding science). The ethics of science, the ethics of reason, I believe, is a whole different sphere from religion. Reason must be kept within reason and I'd rather not have another Dark Ages.

    We should not fear scientific progress, but rather steer it to the way as it is most beneficial to our society.

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