Science's role in society

kkaye at vax.oxford.ac.uk kkaye at vax.oxford.ac.uk
Thu Aug 3 14:42:01 EST 1995


The Wellcome Trust here in the UK funds studies on the Public Understanding of
Science, and there is at least one professorial chair in the subject in the
university of London. the Pugwash Alliance is an example of the science-society
re;lationship in action - originally a group of physicists concerned about the
directions of nuclear research.

It seems current, at the moment, to address the nuclear debate, in that many
people inside and outside science say that the US national debt is equivalent
to the amount of money spent on nuclear-related research; and it is now known
that physical and psychiatric experiments were conducted on US citizens in
pursuit of 'answers' regarding questions relating to plutonium and thorium
exposure.

In another toxicological instance, if we consider asbestos exposures, the
medical consequences of asbestos exposure have been documented since the
1920's. however, in case after case, people exposed to asbestos and then
manifesting asbestosis and then mesotheliomas were denied compensation because
'expert witnesses' - scientists - testified that there was no established
causal link between the exposure and the pathology. This was, simply put, a
lie. Ultimately, the company held responsible for asbestos exposures was
bankrupted with pushing towards several hundred million dollars in compensation
adjudicated upon or potentially owed.

Maybe the *immediate* science we do is notionally owned by the people who pay
for it; but the people who pay for us do not own our souls or our integrity or
the body of knowledge we have already. Nobody can own the value of pi; nobody
can own the knowledge we have that asbestos is causally linked to
mesotheliomas; and so on and so forth. Science is not outside the construct of
ethics, always and in every case; and we do have a duty to consider our
positions if our employers or companies, to our knowledge, use our results to
do things we consider unethical. I have a friend who left his job with a drug
company for ethical reasons; another who turned down a lucrative offer with an
arms manufacturer.

this is a good thread to get involved with; but it might help if we defined our
terms and the spatial and economic scales of the 'effects' we talk about: i.e.,
land mines are one genre of misery; there are 10 million of them in Angola and
they will take 45 years to play themselves out; they will do so by inflicting
civilian casualties two orders of magnitude higher than their military casualty
count. Nuclear research, particularly in ill-regulated economies such as the
former Soviet Union, has different and more subtle effects which are perhaps
harder to categorise due to relative evils conditioning the research
environment.

What about the bench biologists? Does anyone concern themselves over genetic
engineering? Should women be forced to abort the genetically unfit, whatever
that might come to mean?

(Dr.) Katherine J. Kaye
University of Oxford



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