Summer Conference 1999: Science, Ethics & Human Destiny

Science and Technology: To what will they lead us?


[Note: Several questions were posed from the floor at a time, then responded to by the speakers.]

Do you think you can make a bright line distinction between pure science and applied science or technology? In the case of pure science, do you think it’s possible in some cases for pure scientists to be able to foresee what some of the implications of their work might be and, as a result of possibly foreseeing negative consequences, realize they might have an ethical duty not to pursue those lines of scientific inquiry?

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How does personal responsibility fit into this for everybody, the scientist, the technologist, the regulators and the public?

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Do you think the eventual goal of human knowledge is to build a better mousetrap; to be able to create a form of life that is able to do all that we can, but is not limited by the physical limitations and, therefore, our quest for perfection is, in fact, to be the agent of our own destruction?

Sir John: I said quite deliberately science is neutral ethically. What I meant by science was the collective effort to understand what the world is like.

I think I said, I certainly meant to say, that I can think of no case in which a better understanding of the world has been in any way maligned, or been disadvantageous to human beings.

My distinction between science and applied science was not meant to be science on one side and applied science on the other.

But the decision that are taken frequently by companies and by governments to turn some piece of understanding of the world into a machine that can be sold, a drug that can be sold, or a technique that can be used, [these] evidently are the points at which the ethical questions arise.

Let me say something about ethics.

It’s possible for pure discovery, a discovery of what the world is like, to have ethical implications in its own right while it hasn’t yet been turned into something practical.

I think the question of ethics is itself a very tricky subject.

If you go back to the 1960s, people were concerned about environmental questions and, in some cases, quite rightly.

But the environmental problems were mostly of the kind where somebody would do something; set up a new industry or goodness knows what, that created pollution that was damaging to people.

It was often said, this is an ethical problem; manufacturers should not pollute environment.

That’s true, of course. But, in my opinion, it’s for governments to create the rules by which public safety is safeguarded. And that has to be done intelligently, forcefully and energetically.

The ethical questions are much more interesting, but are harder to tease up.

For example, the reason that the U.S.. tobacco industry is now having to pay a lot of money to state governments is not because cigarettes cause lung cancer. It is because the companies knew of the danger and withheld it from their customers. That it seems to me is the ethical principle there: honesty, transparency in the sale of products.

That’s the kind of thing I believe is necessary in the application of science generally.

If a computer manufacturer thinks his machine is the cat’s whiskers, it’s understandable he will advertise it as vigorously as he can. If he discovers that the monitors give off some kind of microwave radiation that’s damaging to people’s eyes, or heads, they have an ethical responsibility to disclose that information.

It seems to me that governments [should] back it up by making sure manufacturers do so.

My own view is that the crucial, ethical question that arises in all this genetic stuff and so on has to do with abortion.

Some people say abortion is a crime and one has to respect that view. It’s widely held and it’s not always on religious grounds, either.

Equally, I, who do not believe that to be true, argue for the freedom of people living in countries like this, in Britain and so on, to offer abortion as a solution to difficult problems like the avoidance of genetic handicap.

I think that my reason for believing that this is a prudent course to follow in countries like Canada and Britain is that we have one set of legislation requiring that children should be sent to school so they can pick up an education and so make the best of their genetic potential.

Is it not then inconsistent that we allow people to opt out from a medical technique that might actually avoid the birth of genetically-handicapped children?

I think it’s a hard problem. I think it’s the nub of the ethical issues we ought to be dealing with.

McDonald: I made the relationship between pure science and fine art because I was trying to draw a distinction between the two areas on the basis of motivation.

I was defining pure science as that which is motivated by an understanding of the universe and applied science as being that which you do when you go beyond that and attempt to get into things that effect the quality life of humans.

It’s very difficult to think that one is going to know how to control the result of stopping the pure science attempt to understand the universe better. You could just as easily end up with a result which is an inappropriate result because you don’t understand it well enough when you come to attempt to apply it.

For example, the same basic information by which we understood how the nucleus works is a part of the sequence we went through in understanding how the atom works, then the nucleus [and] then on to the particles that make up the nucleus and now beyond them.

That information has been used both in the construction of atomic bombs – the nuclear bomb – and in nuclear medicine and in primarily all of the various diagnostic techniques that have enabled us to understand what goes on inside our body by looking inside with things like MRI.

But it is an understanding of the nucleus that enables you to do that type of very valuable applied science.

And the questions come to the point where you say, should you stop trying to understand, simply because you are afraid how it might be applied. I would suggest that you should continue to try to understand because the more you understand the better you will be able to understand the implications when you try to apply them.

In terms of personal responsibility, I think all scientists take personal responsibility for what they’re doing. The reason for suggesting that studying pure science is a valuable thing is that those who engage only in that have a relatively pure objective of just trying to understand their universe better.

The quality associated with that exercise can be appreciated in the same way that the quality associated with a fine painting or a fine photograph can be appreciated. That’s why I drew that analogy.

I think all scientists who get involved in the application of that information have got to take personal responsibility for what they’re doing and I think they do.

Dr. Worton: There were a lot of questions there. I’ll only try to address one of them and that was the role of individual responsibility.

As a geneticist involved in developing some of the tools and some of the approaches that allow us to think about genetic intervention and diagnostic tests, including prenatal diagnosis, I think my colleagues and I have a very distinct responsibility.

It takes many forms. One of those forms is to inform and educate the broad public and our political representatives, so that the technologies and the approaches are thoroughly understood.

In other words, we need the public’s help to make informed decisions about how we use that technology and you can only make informed decisions if we help to inform you.

So, one of our responsibilities is to educate. Another one is to respect individual ethics. In the case of abortion there are many whose view is that abortion is not ethically acceptable. Although we do offer prenatal diagnosis for certain serious genetic conditions, we must respect the fact not everyone will take advantage of that; not everyone will want to utilize that technology.

Finally, I think if we are offering something like a genetic test we do have an ethical responsibility to ensure it’s the best test available.

In other words, we have to ensure it is offered in such a way that the testing is done in the best possible way, that it’s highly accurate, that we understand the potential pitfalls of that technology, and that we develop the appropriate guidelines and, if necessary, regulations at the national level to ensure the technology is applied correctly and that we do not end up with inappropriate information.

We want our tests to give us the right answers. We don`t want any mistakes. And to do that is a bit of a challenge, but it’s one I feel the scientific community must take responsibility for.

Knoppers: I`ll take the questions in a slightly different order.

I would argue that the freedom of pursuit of knowledge is a fundamental human right. I would not want to imagine a society where pursuit of knowledge was in any way circumscribed or prescribed in advance.

There`s also in those same conventions the right to benefit from the progress of scientific advances, which really raises international questions of countries that are not currently benefitting from our pursuit of knowledge.

Are we perfecting ourselves for destruction?

Elimination, selection, perfection have always been part of – not necessarily pejorative – but always been part of human history. It doesn’t mean we should repeat them. We finally have international prohibitions against slavery and so on.

Cast systems, choosing one`s mate for marriage – husbandry as we call it the plant and animal kingdom – have always been part of the choices that people have made through the ages.

Are we simply making those choices more evident, more transparent because you can do it under microscopes now?

The more we learn, the more we learn about how complex things are. I think the cloning example with the recent failures with the sheep and the cows that have shown premature aging; this instant replication technique is not as all as certain as we thought it was at first glance.

That brings me to the question about the role of individual or personal values.

My question – beyond personal values where autonomy, autonomy has become the North American mantra that I think sows the seeds of its own destruction in the long run – is that we are have lost our sensitivity and our notion of duty to others and a notion of participating, not for us, but for others with the same condition or for future generations.

I`ll give you an example.

In order to do good research you need good base data. You need good notions of prevalence, incidents, or even of normal genetic variation in populations.

I`ve been working on DNA banking of human genetic material for about 10 or 15 years. In many countries we no longer have access to human DNA, even when all identifiers have been removed because of the notion that persons are their DNA.

When a person’s making a choice with respect to research, obviously that’s a personal choice and values are important. It should be very clear what can, or will be, or will not be, done and for how long; and how the DNA be safeguarded and used or not.

When, however, you’re using anonymized DNA, why, then, can we no longer have access to this DNA that doesn’t belong, in a sense of being identifiable or in anyway linked to the person, without using the same kind of process that is now in place for identified samples?

The reason is that the "sacralization" of human DNA has led to incorrect, harmful and potentially inefficient drugs being used that are not appropriate at all, or are toxic, or are not effective. This is because we no longer can set up population epidemiological studies; the DNA of the individual having taken precedent over population health which seeks to establishing safe, accurate and, thus, ethical, scientific data.

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I carry the gene for hemophilia, as does my daughter and as her 8-year-old daughter does. At the time my daughter was making ethical judgments about the family, she was told that by that the time [her daughter] was in the position to make decision about a family, genetic engineering would have looked after things, so that she wouldn’t have to worry about passing on this gene.

Is this so and, if it is, what are the mechanics of changing this gene, removing the unpleasant one and replacing it with one that would serve better?

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Sir John, you said we’re wiser because we understand the world better. I would think that maybe increases our knowledge base, but it doesn’t necessarily make us wiser.

With this great acceleration and accumulation of scientific knowledge, do you think there’s any way the world could catch up with wisdom, short of a moratorium on science and research?

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I want to come back to the [topic] that science is ethically neutral.

[A purpose of] the recent world science conference in Budapest was to get all of the countries that have delegations to the UN to approve a declaration on science and society for the 21st century.

One of the primary provisions in that is that science is not ethically neutral.

It’s also very interesting to look at why we make those decisions, such [as] science is ethically neutral. It was interesting here [in that] scientists supported that.

One analogy you can make is the way in which physicians, when they started to become very powerful in society and were inhibited by the church from intervening on people’s bodies, they convinced the church that it should look after the soul and leave care of the body to them and what they did to it really didn’t matter.

It was suggested in Budapest that this was the same way in which scientists had managed to convince people that you didn’t need to worry about what scientists were doing because that was totally neutral. The position you put, Sir John.

What is being suggested is an oath for scientists. Why does it matter what they do scientifically, because science is not just a matter of individual conscious or responsibility. It’s a decision that has to be taken by all of us, for all of us. Not only for us now, but for the future. And ethics is about values and priorities. And those just can’t be the values of scientists, including with respect to what they discover.

So, with respect, I strongly disagree.

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How do we inform the folks out there who are not exposed to the education and knowledge [about science] so that good, ethical wise decisions can be made concerning support for science funding?

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Everybody has mentioned that we are going to have to make decisions that have terrible consequences and that education is important. But which kind of education? Where are we going to learn the critical thinking that was mentioned as a necessity for our future?

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Sir John: Let me take up the question that suggested science has not made us wiser.

I find it actually very hard to understand what is meant. Look at the things that have been anticipated in the past two years.

Global warming, for example. This is one of the unexpected and unwelcome consequences of widespread technological development.

Who recognized this danger first? Well, as a matter of fact, it was Arrhenius in Sweden at the end of the last century. But he didn’t make a big fuss about it because it was not then a serious problem.

It was a chap at Harvard University who put it on the map in the 1940s. And its taken from the 1940s until now for it to have become an institutionalized recognition of a danger.

It was scientists who snuffed out the danger and institutionalized it by a lot of propaganda. And that’s one sense in which scientists act responsibly, but it’s actually also a measure of how science has made us wiser.

That’s true of the infections I was talking about. It’s true of all kinds of things like, for example, in the 1980s the decision taken after a conference in California that there should be a moratorium on genetic manipulation, which lasted 18 months.

That was a decision taken by scientists and rubber stamped by government.

Science, I suggest, is not merely a bit more responsible than this discussion has suggested but, actually, it’s smarter and wiser.

I like to go back to this question of whether science has to be neutral.

Something Bartha said in her presentation made me think of this.

I said when I was talking that we have opted out of evolution, of natural selection in the sense that we do not let the least fit members of our community die because we have too much compassion for them and good luck to us for having that human reaction.

It does, nevertheless, follow that because we no longer have natural selection to shape our genetic makeup in the years and decades and centuries ahead, we have to take on our own shoulders as people the responsibility for ensuring our match with the environment we happen to live in.

After all, all natural selection does is to mold a genome to match the environment in which it’s placed.

We have to do that for ourselves. And that requires a lot of novel decisions.

Everyone is right in saying these are difficult problems. Everyone would agree with me when I say that too little is known of the fundamentals of how genes are controlled and so on for it to be possible to do it with any great confidence at present.

But, it’s one of the things we have to recognize is now a human responsibility. If we take it as a given that the survival of the human race is a necessity, is a prime goal, should be a prime goal; if one recognizes that, one also has to recognize that some things are more urgent than others.

And, in my opinion, while the Rio Convention on Biodiversity gives the tiger and the whale in the sea indefinite survival rights, I wouldn’t put my hand on my heart and say, we can afford to preserve the tigers and the whales if the survival of the human race becomes a little bit more difficult than it is at present.

In that sense, we have a novel situation. We ought to recognize that it’s novel. We ought to recognize it requires this imagination and courage of which Adlai Stevenson spoke.

So, is science ethically neutral?

If somebody could give me an example of how a piece of understanding of what the world is like had of itself, by itself led to some unwelcome consequence I would accept that what I’ve said was wrong.

I can think of none.

I can think, of course, of plenty of circumstances where somebody has done something based on scientific understanding that has created problems.

I can think of all kinds of circumstances in which that kind of danger can be avoided by proper regulation. It has to imaginative and flexible regulation.

But, for my part I’m entirely unrepentant. I think science has made us wiser and I think that science is ethically neutral. And I think we have to be more energetic than we have been and more daring, perhaps, in suggesting new kinds of regulations.

Let me give you just one example.

The most effective way now of making really damaging effective biological weapons is to use the genetic techniques for grafting onto ordinary bacteria, like the ones in our gut, some toxins like to cholera toxin or even the plague toxin, which have in the past caused all kinds of trouble in human populations.

I suspect that’s the kind of thing the Iraqi government was trying to look into before the UN inspectors got there. The dangers of that are so great that is a case for asking that genetic manipulation research should all be licensed.

It is in Britain. You have to apply for a licence to do anything, but not in the United States. I don’t know the regulatory situation in Canada, but I suspect you’re a bit more like Britain than the United States.

But I do know that the regulatory situation in North Korea and Iraq is not a bit like it is in Britain.

I think we have to think – given those kind of toxins – to require that every genetic manipulation experiment should be licensed.

The big problem [is] it should be done internationally. That’s the kind of daring we need in looking at the other side of coin.

McDonald: In trying to define the discussion between pure and applied science I was certainly not trying to suggest that pure scientists have to avoid ethical questions or personal responsibility.

I was simply trying to focus the discussion in the area where the question of how we use the information that we have wisely and what is the definition of wisely in this case.

Presumably it is the most appropriate use of that information in order to improve the quality of life.

In terms of education, how do we seed [inform] the next generation? I think you’ve got to catch their imagination. You’ve got to go at them with the kind of presentation we had last evening in which you try to catch their imagination on the pure science side of what is our universe about.

But, you’ve also got to catch their imagination in attempting to get involved with these ethical issues and with the wise use of information, so that it is to the best advantage in terms of improving the quality of life.

Dr. Worton: I’ll just focus on the question about treating hemophilia.

It’s a very practical question and it came from a person who was told several years ago that gene technologies would allow, in the future, the correction of this defect.

I think that statement is still true.

The speed with which gene therapy, or genetic replacement therapy, has been developed has not been as swift as some people had predicted. I think after genes were cloned and we began to understand that this was theoretical possibility there was a very rapid movement to put genes into tissues and try to correct things.

We recognize now, in retrospect, that not as much care was taken, perhaps, as could have been. Perhaps the expectations of the scientists were high, the expectations of the general public were high. And many of the early experiments failed.

But, I can tell you that over the last five years the numbers of experiments in animals have been multiplied many fold and now the delivery systems for putting genes into cells are improving. The animal models to test those ideas are improving and whole situation of gene therapy is coming to another level.

I think over the next five to 10 years you will see some early clinical trials in hemophilia, as well as other genetic disorders and, perhaps, some modest successes there. And in 20 years I would predict that gene therapy will be highly effective in a number of disorders.

Knoppers: Just a quick update on licensing. There will be a Bill presented this Fall in Parliament, Bill 247.

That’s the failed reproductive technologies Bill coming back, which will include licensing for genetic laboratories and so on.

I’d like to reply to the question about an oath. All professionals in professional societies who have independent expertise and , thus, the responsibility and accountability that go with it, are required when they are accepted into the profession to take an oath to serve both the public and their client.

I don’t see why if librarians, teachers, lawyers, physicians and so on [do so], why it can’t include research scientists.

More importantly, in order to spare me the questions every Sunday night from my mother-in-law, I think the media should also take such an oath.

Couchiching Online History Table of Contents 1999 Summer Conference