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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 15 2013: It depends... Often one cannot know how knowledge will be used, but performing research with the aim of developing specific technologies can be clearer.

    Let's use, for example, an invention which is being pursued by Craig Ventor .. I believe he is working to create a form of algae which will generate oil as a byproduct of it's metabolism. I can see good and bad consequences of this - A potential bad consequence is feeding the acceleration of CO2 buildup in the atmosphere if current climate modeling is close to being correct. My guess is that he has thought of this and decided on balance he is doing the right thing and willing to risk making a mistake..If his product is ever developed and put into large scale use, and results in an overall negative, he will be considered partly responsible by many. But as someone else pointed out, intentions matter.. If he acted in good faith believing his invention will overall be beneficial, and it turns out it is not, we can't fault him. But if he is simply trading his knowledge for cash from oil companies, and hasn't put serious thought into consequences with something this obvious, then he would be at fault.
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      Mar 15 2013: I agree, intentions always matter when morality is concerned. Anticipating unintentional consequences of our actions is also important, though. This is the difficult part as it takes a lot of experience and wisdom.

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