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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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    Mar 30 2011: I don't see the purpose of having an opinion about this, as it proceeds undaunted. So what if I feel deep revulsion at the direction of this research? It's not like that work will at any point be suspended until some of these supposedly critical questions can be considered. The researchers may have asked themselves the questions and have apparently satisfied themselves that their work is leading toward something worthwhile, or perhaps simply valuable ($), which is the only criterion that seems to need to be met. Personally, I deeply dislike where that kind of prioritization has gotten us.
    • Apr 18 2011: Being indifferent never got anyone anywhere. Having the opinion that this kind of research needs to be halted is one thing, but apathy in the face of something that you think is wrong is another. It seems as though you assume that all scientists need to do is make sure that their work satisfies their own moral compass, but in reality, there are a lot of checks and balances involved (one of them being protesters).

      That being said, while I respect your opinion, I'd like to express my belief that science progresses not in the pursuit of the almighty dollar, but rather, in the hope of bettering humanity. I support stem cell research in all forms because sooner or later, science figures things out, and if there's a chance that this research can help prolong/improve the quality of even one human life, it is worth the time, arguments, and effort.

      As hard as it is for me to say, it's better that you openly oppose stem cell research and try to fight it than resign yourself to the idea that you are powerless.

    • Apr 18 2011: Having an opinion about this is very important. Is it morally right to genetically alter these creatures? Yes and no. They were bred for this purpose and so it is only right we do what we intend to do with them for the benefit of research. However, not everything we do to them is making a clear benefit to research. Take the glowing animals for example, it benefits research in the sense that it shows we can effectively alter the genes of an animal and implant those altered genes into an egg which then becomes the animal. Even though it benefits research it serves no useful purpose for the animals to glow in the dark.
      I think work will greatly be suspended if laws are passed to stop the research on animals. Simply because researchers think that their work will lead them to something worthwhile or valuable does not mean that they have a right to do their work. They must consider the opinions of other people and find out what they think about the subject and whether or not they also think that it will benefit them as a society. If researchers were the only ones who chose the criteria that needed to be met I think that science would be a lot further along than it is right now. Society has stopped science from progressing as fast as it would have without considering ethical questions. It is the considerations of others that make scientists think whether what they are doing is right or wrong and the progress of science also influences their decision.

      -Jonathan D.
    • Apr 19 2011: It is important to have some people that at least care about the human consequences, morally and ethically, to keep the evolution of science on a secure and stable track. Although you may not want to have an opinion, it would certainly ease the minds of the masses if some people in the science field, or with the knowledge, cared about the impact that these experiments might have on the world. In this day and age, common people are more in tune with what science is leading up to; paranoia and shock are basic exploits that the media uses in order to spread the word.

      Personally, I would be more content about an experiment if the scientist at least thought of the possible consequences of their actions. Heartless experimentation with cold demeanors towards “feeling” is a one sided and biased way to operate. It is important to at l least hear both sides and try to not overly experiment beyond the public’s comfort zone. Yes, I do believe that in order to move on forward in the world, we must take a leap, but to just blindly leap off a cliff is foolish.

      This whole “this is useless” aura I’m getting from you reeks of negativity. Sure, these scientists might be in it for the money, but whatever gets us to a new and better world is fine by me. Just because these motivations might be “impure” or “just,” opinions on what they do to make that dough must be discussed to prevent utter mindless and immoral research.

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