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Engaging with the ethical implications of science

By Christopher J.R. Willmott and John Bryant

Abstract

This paper was presented at the Science Learning and Teaching Conference 2005, University of Warwick, 27-28 June and published in the proceedings. The published version is also available at http://www.bioscience.heacademy.ac.uk/hosted/sltc/2005.asp.Perhaps the first question that many will ask is ‘Why should we engage with the ethical implications of science?’ It may be argued that as scientists our job in research is to investigate the universe and in teaching, to enable our students to understand current hypotheses and the reasons why they are held. We deal, the argument continues, in data and evidence gained by rigorous experimentation, observation and measurement - the Baconian approach to understanding the world. Ethics, i.e. the attempt to systematise questions of morals, questions of right and wrong, surely lies outside our remit.\ud Such a view is not, however, endorsed by the authors of the QAA benchmarking statements, which stress that students across a range of disciplines, including biological sciences, should be aware of and be able to demonstrate understanding of the ethical and social implications of advances in their subject (QAA, 2002). We believe that the reasons for this are clear; it is no longer appropriate to regard the sciences as existing in isolation.\ud Scientific activity is part of our culture, supported by and embedded in society. That is not to say that we regard the findings of science as socially constructed, a position that we firmly reject. Nor is it to say that science is warmly embraced or even understood by the whole of society: it very clearly is not.\ud However, science is surely accountable to the society that supports it, and that accountability includes being aware of the wider implications (see Bryant et al, 2005). In biological sciences especially, those wider implications are growing fast. Modern biological and biomedical science is giving us power to manipulate the lives of other living organisms and of other humans in ways that were undreamed of only a few years ago.\ud Society is therefore faced with dealing with the new possibilities that arise from scientific advances. But in our view, scientists cannot opt out at this point. At the very least, they have the responsibility to communicate clearly what is possible and what is not, to make sure that the science and its possible applications are understood so that ethical considerations are rooted in reality. We would go further, and suggest that scientists should also participate in the debate itself or, as the title of this paper suggests, be able to engage with the ethical implications. [Taken from the Introduction

Publisher: The Higher Education Academy Subject Centres for Bioscience and Materials and Physical Sciences
Year: 2005
OAI identifier: oai:lra.le.ac.uk:2381/9160

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Citations

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