TED Conversations

Arkady Grudzinsky


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Are scientists responsible for the consequences of their discoveries?

Edith Widder concluded her talk about finding the giant squid with a controversial remark: "Exploration is the engine that drives innovation. Innovation drives economic growth." This was said in a context that we know less about oceans than we know about space and that we need an organization comparable to NASA to study the oceans.

This sparked a lot of concerns like the one expressed by Peter Graham: "human experience tells us that when something of value is discovered, there are plenty of less well intentioned people who WILL exploit it for financial gain and couldn't care less about the future of humanity or of our planet so long as they make their fortune. That is also part of our human nature. I would be horrified to see a NASA-like organisation set up to explore the depths of the oceans, even though I fully support people like Dr. Edith Widder. Keep the "money sharks" away from our oceans."

I would argue that benefits to humanity brought by scientific research are not limited to "economic growth". We never know what knowledge and possibilities research would open. Someone may use the knowledge to create a weapon of mass destruction, someone may exploit the newly discovered natural resource, but someone may find a cure for cancer or find a solution for energy crisis. Should fear that someone will misuse the knowledge preclude a scientist from doing the research? Should scientists use discretion in choosing funding sources for the research?

Ethical issues are never simple. I don't expect an easy answer, but rather an exchange of ideas. Here are a couple of links to appreciate the complexity of the issue:

Topics: ethics science

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    Mar 12 2013: I agree with Peter Graham: He who pays the piper, calls the tune, to paraphrase.

    It's probably a close call and subject to relativism, but isn't morality in science better achieved by funding through the ballot-box/ the paying of taxes rather than by the purchasing of products? Is political bias the lesser evil than the biases endemic in commercial interests?

    I would argue that state funded research would have a tighter grip on morality and end-user well-being, than would commercial funding and its default towards shareholder interests.
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      Mar 12 2013: Well, NASA is a government agency. Yet, people seem to oppose creation of a similar agency for oceanic studies.

      People who pay for scientific research can call what is being researched, they cannot call the results. There is motivation for anything humans do, including scientific research. A scientist is always interested in a certain outcome. There is nothing wrong with bias as long as research is done according to certain rules.

      Scientific misconduct is a slightly different issue. My question is, whether a fear of unintended use of research results should prevent a scientist from doing the research. This seems like an argument defending ignorance.

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