Opinion

Science and Ethics: Can We Do Better?

Monday, Dec. 1, 2008|Living in San Diego, we may not always recognize the extraordinary strength of our local science and technology community.

If asked, most of us know that the region hosts numerous colleges and universities that are among the top in the nation. Less widely appreciated is that this academic strength is fertile ground to seed research and development in many areas of science and technology. The San Diego economy is based not only on tourism and defense, but also on the biomedical, biotechnology, pharmaceutical, communication, and software industries.

San Diego’s strength in science and technology is of course good news, but it also comes with a responsibility to face three significant and related challenges.

The first challenge is public understanding of science. According to the National Science Foundation’s 2008 report on Science and Engineering Indicators, public understanding of how science works and awareness of the most basic scientific findings is low. More than 50 percent of Americans believe (falsely) that lasers work by sound waves. On other similarly basic questions, Americans typically responded with correct answers only between 35 and 60 percent of the time. Worldwide, we could ask for improvement in public understanding of science, but lackluster performance by the United States, the current world leader in science and technology, is worrisome.

The second challenge is almost certainly closely related to the reported low levels of scientific knowledge. In nearly every sector of science and technology, the most qualified and most interested candidates for positions as graduate students and postdoctoral researchers are increasingly from abroad. In some sectors, the only applicants are from outside the US. It is of course good news that many more countries now make significant contributions to scientific research, but it may be that America is losing its next generation of scientists.

The third and final challenge concerns the ethics of science and technology. With every new scientific development, we are reminded that technology can be a double-edged sword. Breakthroughs in medicine help us to overcome disease and the ravages of age, but should we worry when treatments are no longer just remedies for something that ails us but are designed to make us “better than normal?” It may be preferable to send an automated mobile reconnaissance and weapon system rather than a human being into a war zone, but at what point are we willing to also accept the risks of replacing the judgment of a human being with the judgment of a machine? We might feel more secure knowing that new technology could allow us to track where every individual is at every moment in time, but are we ready to sacrifice our personal privacy for that security? These are only a few examples of the numerous ethical challenges raised by new technologies.

Is our only choice to limit or slow the advance of science? Not necessarily. We might benefit greatly if we applied the same level of thoughtful analysis to the ethical challenges of science as we do to the science itself. We could apply our critical thinking skills to finding the means to both reap the advantages of a technology and to minimize its harms. Further, rather than waiting for problems to find us, we can attempt to anticipate them. And at every step, we should be cognizant if we don’t take responsibility for deciding what is and is not acceptable, then who will? Solutions are not always going to be simple nor will we always find them. But it’s clear that without the effort, we would resign ourselves to finding no solutions.

Decreases in scientific literacy, decreases in the number of people attracted to careers in science, and ethical impasses are not inevitable. Those who love science and those who understand science can do more to reach the public, the policymakers, and the next generation. Therefore, since San Diego is a world leader in science and technology, it seems reasonable to ask if it is also leading in addressing the threats to the future of science and technology. What we doing to increase understanding of science? To attract more young people to careers in science? To identify and address the ethical challenges of science? Fortunately, we have answers for all of these questions.

San Diego has a long history of individuals and groups that have made science education and public discussion a priority. All of our major universities have made outreach to the public and to our schools a high priority. Teachers of science have come together to improve K-12 science education through the San Diego Science Alliance. The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and other museums in Balboa Park play an important role in communicating science. Local media, including KPBS, the Union-Tribune, the North County Times, and voiceofsandiego.org have all done their part. And beginning in more recent years, a series of programs have been convened by The Science Network, originating in San Diego at the Salk Institute under the leadership of Roger Bingham.

Despite these and other efforts, it is clear that we can not only do better, but efforts are underway to do so. To help improve public understanding of science, beginning in March of 2009, San Diego will host a Science Festival, potentially the largest festival of its kind in North America. Individuals and groups throughout the region will be staging events and activities to help both children and adults learn more about and better appreciate science. To help the San Diego community address the ethical dimensions of science and technology, San Diego’s Center for Ethics in Science and Technology is participating in the Science Festival and now has an ongoing series of monthly events, titled “Exploring Ethics” to tackle the most controversial topics in science and technology. Activities like these may not eliminate the challenges to science, but they almost certainly will move us in the right direction.

Michael Kalichman is director of UCSD’s Research Ethics Program and co-director of the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology. Have any thoughts about ethics in science? Send a letter to the editor here.

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