Scientists as Responsible Members of Society
Who of us as scientists have not discussed the work we do with members of our family, friends, the person sitting next to us on an airplane, or others at social occasions? These kinds of discussions are important, to be sure, but the impact of scientists through interactions with society extends well beyond them. First, the very act of publishing a paper or giving a talk at a meeting puts one’s work “out there” for public dissemination. The news media routinely report the ‘latest’ from scientific meetings or journals. Because these reports are almost always oversimplified and not infrequently skewed, one must be very careful in presenting data and its significance, and especially in how the information should be understood. Second, scientists act on occasion as an interface between more generalized areas of science and the public. Examples include expert testimony in legal proceedings and participation in public policy debates. Scientists in these settings must recognize that the potential for conflict and bias are quite high. Third, scientists who are active within scientific societies, who are closely allied with the leadership of public or private sources of funding, or who serve in administrative capacities formulate policy and set standards for science as it affects the public. A prime example, of course, are those who work with, and within, the FDA. Finally, anyone who writes research proposals for NIH funding will have considered the section entitled “Select Agent Research.” This section exists in part to flag ‘dual-use’ research, research that could be misapplied to pose a threat to public health and safety and to the environment. All these examples underscore the need for scientists to view their potential impact on society more generally, certainly beyond that of scientific contribution alone.
The responsibility of scientists to society is a most interesting topic, as it places a demand on us to extend beyond the comfort of the work we do to the often changing expectations, fears, and welfare of society. We should be well positioned to do so.
Two books often cited within this RCR website, and which can be accessed electronically through the Biomedical Library, provide excellent and very different takes on this topic. Shamoo and Resnick stress moral and ethical obligations as a point of departure in one’s thinking, specifically that all scientists are expected, at many levels, to benefit society and to avoid causing harm. Macrina uses more of an historical approach, providing a detailed (and fascinating) account of the debate surrounding recombinant DNA technology. A treatment such as this becomes especially interesting as we seek parallels with current issues – for example, fetal tissue and embryonic stem cell research, use of individual and population genomic information, and DNA editing.
Textbook cases are provided in this module, as they are in others. But investigators are strongly encouraged to balance such cases with examples drawn from issues that affect society as they currently arise. An excellent example of this, provided by Steve DiNardo, concerns CRISPR gene editing, which is included here as a ‘case-study’. Other discussions might be developed around the above-mentioned topics, but a quick scan through newspapers, high profile journals, scientific society websites, and public policy websites will provide additional ideas.
Policies and Guidelines
No guidelines specific to this topic exist for BGS or the University.
Two textbooks provide excellent discussions of scientists as responsible members of society. Both are electronically accessible through the Biomedical Library. These are:
Scientific Integrity, F.L. Macrina, 4th ed.
Responsible Conduct of Research, A.E. Shamoo and D.B. Resnick, 3rd ed.
This is the link to the AAAS Center of Science, Policy, and Society Programs, which lists events, awards, projects, resources: http://www.aaas.org/program/center-science-policy-and-society-programs
This is the link to PolicyBlotter, sponsered by ASBMB: http://policy.asbmb.org
This is the link to ScienceInsider, a policy publication: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/scienceinsider
Biomedical findings picked up by the national media from journals or meetings provide a rich source of material. The exercise of contrasting any story with actual data, if the data can be found in a scientific journal, is highly useful.