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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:
http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2009/08/19/the-role-of-ethics-in-science/#.UT4O4SR4zng
http://www.dartmouth.edu/~ethics/archives/Stern_Elliott.pdf

Topics: ethics science
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  • Mar 12 2013: I think we should dare to take the risk, although a calculated risk. Without acting, no results will come out of it, and I see that as worse than having a negative or positive result.
    • Mar 13 2013: I agree with you in the fact that taking risks are necessary in terms of scientific exploration. Inaction is worse than negative or positive action; at least we can learn of the dangers of science and create means of prevention and even safer, innovative technologies from a discovery gone wrong.
    • Mar 13 2013: Sarah, do you think we should always take the risk or do you think there are instances when the risks are too large? I agree with the idea overall, that we need to take risks to move forward but there may be times when this just isn't practical.
      • Mar 13 2013: I say calculated risk for a reason. For example, I wouldn't want a group of individuals to carry out their experiment if it is known that there is a large chance of many people dying. Instead, we need to find ways in order to remove that risk, and then the experiment should be carried out, especially if that experiment carries many benefits. I wouldn't abandon ship on something if it has big risk. We should take the time and effort to reduce that risk.
      • Mar 13 2013: Money may be another issue. Do you think we should carry something out despite a potentially large cost for something that may or may not yield beneficial results?
      • Mar 13 2013: I think this is where scientists must further delve into opportunity costs and expected results as well as expected failure. In terms of money, I think it's important to spend money on the actual process of research rather than the experiment as to it's potential effectiveness before performing the actual experiment. If the money is spent usefully in research, this might lower the cost of an experiment in terms of failure.
        • Mar 14 2013: That's an interesting point Susan and I agree with you. An issue that arises is where this money comes from. I am not so sure that people will be willing to have their tax money go to something that isn't 100% sure to succeed, so even if the scientist takes the responsibility for their consequences, that doesn't solve the issue of what has happened. Do you think it even matters whether they take the responsibility? The consequences still happened; that's that. What do you think?
      • Mar 14 2013: I think that scientists being willing to own up to their failures and willingness to continue research in order to overcome their failures will matter in the grand scheme. We need to build trust between scientists, the government, and the general public in order to all collaborate cooperatively. This trust will encourage beneficiary funding as well as spending and with more spending, more effective research as well as experimentation can be performed. It is rarely 100% guaranteed for a experiment to yield expected results exactly, but with better research, we might be able to get closer getting what we want from an experiment. Either way, we must encourage research instead of halting it. There is a much bigger consequence than discovering knowledge that could be used badly, that consequence being that this knowledge is first discovered by someone else and used for bad.
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          Mar 14 2013: I agree, Susan, that we need to build such trust. It would be useful for the public to have a much better understanding of science so as not to be duped so often by false and misleading representations. It would be useful for scientists to understand the importance of such communication from their end. If scientists do not make this effort, someone else will propagate misleading stuff that serves science and the public poorly in the end.
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        Mar 14 2013: It seems to me that in some cases there is no choice to make a discovery or not to make it. Often, when a technology is ripe for a discovery, it will be made sooner or later. Sometimes, discoveries are made in parallel by independent researchers.

        Nuclear fusion research and the creation of a hydrogen bomb is a great example. Soviet Union and the U.S. conducted this research in parallel. Both sides knew that they are creating a weapon of unprecedented destructive power. Yet, neither side could afford to stop the research in fear that the other side would make the discovery first.

        I don't think that scientific progress can be deliberately stopped. It's beyond individual human power. When we talk about humanity at large or nations, statistical laws take over and decisions of an individual scientist do not matter. Things can only be changed through persuasion of large masses of people through a propaganda machine such as media or religion.

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