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Building society's role in science

After my sophomore year, I was lucky enough to procure a federal grant to work at a private biomedical research foundation in San Antonio, Texas. My job was to look for polymorphism within the major histocompatibility complex II of a Brazilian marsupial, Monodelphis domestica. In other words, I was trying to find differences in DNA sequences that code for an important immune system gene. My mentor's hope was that, eventually, by discovering more about marsupial immune systems, we could learn more about our own.

While working there, I met a lab technician by the name of John. Now, at first I thought John was pretty cool for a scientist – he always talked about fishing, exotic beers and his travels around the world. However, a discussion over the nature of science brought home to me the true nature of my colleague.


We were discussing how the government decides which research deserves federal or state funding. I was of the opinion that biological research, especially medical research, was done for the benefit of man or for the benefit of other living creatures on this earth. I also thought that the public had a right to voice their complaints against certain experiments.

John, however, believed that the public usually had no idea what they were talking about and should not influence policy. Additionally, he saw the benefit-to-humanity idea to be too limiting, and he wished the government would just let scientists research whatever would increase knowledge. Scientists should be trusted to regulate themselves without the government or the public exerting their own morality on research that could eventually help them. Using the example of Mendel, he tried to show me how what is originally obscure research could turn out to be the key to truly understanding how things work.

Since I was merely a peon in the foundation, I did not think it was wise to argue with John, who had worked in the lab for many years. However, there was something disconcerting in his comments. While it is true that objective scientific research is amoral and could be applied to good causes, it is also true that it could be applied to causes that are destructive to mankind. Moreover, I do not believe scientists themselves are objective – it is important to note that researchers subscribe to numerous philosophies and ideals when performing their experiments, such as the betterment of mankind, the search for the divine within nature, the pursuit of knowledge or the pursuit of a Nobel Prize.

During the course of my current thesis research, which deals with the ethics of genetic engineering, I have read numerous articles and books by both secular and religious authors. While I believe both sides are equally valid and somewhat compatible in many cases, the secular ethicists have become increasingly hostile to religious views – lumping them all together – from the most liberal to the most fundamentalist. There is a growing arrogance among the secularists, who disregard the views of anyone who uses terms like God, grace and divine love. Though I do not consider myself religious, I still believe that it is degrading when scientists reduce humans to the mere sum of their genes. The search for the meaning of life should be a humbling experience, not one that instills a false sense of pride and excessive self-worth.

What I hope to bring across is that while the pursuit of knowledge is honorable, it would be naive to think that research exists in a vacuum. Society has a right and a duty to know what research is being performed and what scientists hope to achieve by discovering new data and principles. Our moral convictions do not merely represent thoughts to be taken into consideration – unless they can be successfully undermined, they should regulate how society is to deal with the new data.

To bring this issue to light, many ethicists discuss the research that led to the development of atomic fission and nuclear weapons. While the nature of the research was questioned at first by even Oppenheimer and Einstein, the decision was made to delay ethical questions until the bomb was built. We now have the chance to form proper guidelines and principles regarding the alteration of the most vital aspect of our humanity – our genes. Let us try to develop coherent moral positions before the technology falls into our laps. Only by seriously considering the views of the populace now can we can hope to avoid abuses and existentialist dilemmas in the future.