Whether it is debating the use of recreational drugs or trying to justify the development of a nuclear plant, Science has always been stretching the ethical boundaries of humanity. For far too long, scientists have carried out experiments without considering any of the ethical consequences, as that was not their field of study. However, in the past century, we humans have begun to understand and experience the ethical consequences of these scientific discoveries. For instance, Alfred Nobel’s discovery of dynamite, which was believed to lead to world peace, made him the “Angel of Death” or the gift of fossil fuels turning into an environmental nightmare, all discoveries have consequences. Experience has taught us that, while scientific discovery is essential to our understanding of the universe, doing so without understanding all the ethical ramifications, is destructive to our very cause.
Some of the major ethical issues currently being debated are-
- Responsibility and regulation- With growing concerns about the applications of research, who should be held responsible for misuse of scientific research and try to regulate it.
- Human Participation- Development of new treatments requires human trials, but come at the risk of serious physiological and psychological side-effects, making R&D for experimental treatments an arduous process.
- Environmental impact- With climate change and global warming becoming urgent issues, the environmental impact of research has to be considered.
- Artificial Intelligence- to what extent should science rely on algorithms for different tasks.
The list keeps getting longer, and more confusing to navigate as research is published, highlighting mistakes of the past. As society is beginning to acknowledge the importance of strong ethical standards, countless studies and guidelines have been developed. Some of the most well-known resources include:
- UNESCO Guide to ethics in science and technology
- Bioethics Resources on the Web is a Web site maintained by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This site contains a plethora of links to other bioethics sites.
- Ethics in Scientific Research: An Examination of Ethical Principles and Emerging Topics in various scientific fields.
- Ethics thinking toolkit- This provides a structured framework for scaffolding student thinking about ethical issues.
However, as scientists growing up in a generation that is breaking the boundaries of possibilities every day, how do we make daily decisions with the least ethical consequences. These are the basic guidelines for conducting ethical research in most scientific fields.
- Ethical issues- Identifying all the possible ethical consequences of your research, no matter how small or insignificant.
- Gather all the facts- Past studies that support or criticise your hypothesis should all be gathered, and a complete transparent picture generated.
- Affected parties- Identify all parties that might be affected by your discoveries.
- Analyse alternatives- Look at alternative research methods, and compare the strengths and weaknesses of each.
- Solutions- Develop possible solutions that can minimize the impact of the ethical problems created by your study.
- Consider your personal values and integrity- Are you an objective researcher and being honest with yourself.
- Finalize research methods, and implement it.
- Evaluate- Study the results and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the study.
However, despite all these steps, the reality remains that there are no perfect options, and all the decisions will have consequences, known or unknown, immediately or a few years later, as scientific discoveries are made our decisions will be studied and criticised like we do those of our ancestors. However, this should not be a deterrent for pursuing scientific knowledge, instead should encourage it. The one thing to remember, however, is to be completely transparent with all your decisions and accepting of the limitations your research had, and hope it will push our scientific knowledge only further.
Resources- Ethical Decision making Framework-https://research.ku.edu/sites/research.ku.edu/files/docs/EESE_EthicalDecisionmakingFramework.pdf