Moral mechanisms

Science and Engineering Ethics
May 29, 1998

Biomedical ethics is one of the scholarly growth industries of the decade. Not so discussion of ethics for science and engineering more generally. But while biological manipulation, genetic information and control over reproduction often grab the headlines for good reasons, there are ethical problems arising in the course of research in other areas that get far less attention.

Many crop up in the increasingly complex and politically tangled business of risk assessment. Since the controversies over nuclear fallout began in the 1950s, scientific whistleblowers have highlighted a series of problems, from DDT to ozone depletion and global warming, which appear to require action to safeguard the environment. But how should technical experts weigh their desire to warn of real or potential dangers against their awareness of the uncertainties of their predictions? What principles govern their advice to policy-makers or the public in a world of imperfect information and political expediency?

We can all offer wisdom in hindsight. Who would now maintain that most scientists' tacit support for ministerial assertions about the impossibility of BSE posing any risk to humans - assertions that clearly went far beyond the evidence - was well judged? But finding helpful things to say to people grappling with real problems as they unfold is much harder.

All this means that the advent of a new journal devoted to science and engineering ethics is extremely welcome, especially if it offers a forum for debate about pressing issues like these. But it is a slight disappointment to find that coverage of the first nine issues does not touch on these questions very often.

That may be because there are so many other aspects of scientists' and engineers' practice and conduct that can be discussed under the heading of professional ethics. The scope of the journal is certainly broad. First come a range of issues connected with the internal practice of science - how to deal with funding agencies, students and colleagues, how to apportion credit for new findings, arrangements for quality assurance and research integrity, the proper treatment of human and animal subjects, and ownership of results. Then there is the larger set of problems rooted in the application of knowledge. These include familiar topics, such as scientists' responsibilities in relation to nuclear, chemical or biological weapons as well as the more recently highlighted issues that shade into environmental impact analysis and technology assessment. Examples here include "global information ethics", a discussion emerging from the development of computer ethics to embrace the internet and the world-wide web.

This was the topic for a useful special issue. Other special issues so far have been devoted to more familiar (to me) discussions of trustworthy research - mostly untrustworthy research, actually - and that hardy perennial, peer review. The latter certainly offers a useful overview of an area that already has a large literature, though it is a hard to see that especially pressing ethical issues arise. We surely already know that it is unethical to trash a competitor's research anonymously, to steal their ideas or to make comments after a casual perusal of a paper. Policy measures to minimise sharp practice are important, but perhaps better discussed elsewhere.

Perhaps, though, one should regard all of the issues as interrelated. If scientists are seen to behave unethically toward their peers or to fudge their results in small ways, it scarcely enhances trust in their findings when we are asked to take their advice on global futures. So the significance of the journal may be that its very existence is an incentive to try to develop an integrated view of the ethics of science and engineering. This is something so far absent from other outlets.

Papers on ethical topics appear regularly in science studies journals such as Science, Technology and Human Values or the former Knowledge (now retitled Science Communication) as well as in journals for professionals in fields such as computer science and information technology. But there is virtue in bringing these discussions together in a single journal that runs the gamut of ethical concerns. It is also useful to have a journal that features a range of authors, from practising scientists and engineers teaching or researching ethical issues to professional philosophers. At their best, the papers published so far show a deeper acquaintance with the philosophical literature than is often shown in such discussions. But when it comes to science studies, there are still plenty of authors wedded to a "use-abuse" model that assumes the neutrality of science without demonstrating it, as if nothing had happened in discussion of the ways particular kinds of applications may be built into the conceptual structure of a research field in the past 30 years.

Six of the nine issues reviewed contain contributions to an educational forum section. These range from curriculum reviews to personal comments from a graduate student in science on the need for training in ethics. I hope the section's absence from the last two issues seen is a coincidence, not a trend, as the educational role of the journal seems potentially of special value. This is an area that deserves to develop, not just as a research focus but as a topic for courses offered to science and engineering students at all levels. When demand for such courses is manifest, it is not always obvious how to get materials together to run one, and many rely on case studies drawn up by an enthusiastic tutor. Effective though that can be, a reliable guide to a wider range of resources, both in terms of published research and pedagogical material, will be very useful. The effort to encourage personal contributions from postgraduate students in the sciences is equally welcome.

The journal has made a promising beginning, then. If it has not always been clear-sighted in selection of papers, this is partly a consequence of the scale of its editorial ambitions. Offering consistently high quality across the range of areas covered and developing a distinctive contribution to the discussions it wants to promote will demand much of editors and reviewers. I wish them well. They have launched an important journal that is already a rewarding read most of the time. In a few years, it could become a vital one.

Jon Turney is senior lecturer in the department of science and technology studies, University College London.

Science and Engineering Ethics

Editor - Stephanie Bird and Raymond Spier
ISBN - ISSN 1353 3452
Publisher - Opragen
Price - £77.00 (institutions); £42.00 (Individuals)

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