In this essay, I will be discussing a range of social issues related to the development and research of controversial scientific developments, and considering the extent of responsibility – if any – that scientific researchers have towards how their results are used in today’s world. I will be discussing research in the field of nuclear power, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, and providing a range of different viewpoints before arriving at my conclusion.
I would like to begin by explaining why I have termed the above developments as controversial. Whether one’s opinion of the relevant subject is based on a range of ethical theories such as consequence-based or character-based ethics, it is clear that the above subject matter inevitably leads to deep thought provocation and strong belief in either side of the relevant argument.
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The subject of nuclear power is one such subject which is has been in the news of recent years and has stirred up a great deal of controversy with regards to that nuclear power being used as weapons of mass destruction by Iran1 (BBC News Online, 2006). Iran claims that its research into this field of science is so that the country can produce nuclear energy that will provide electricity to its country. And while many western countries and observers look on with concerns about the issue – and more importantly, Iran’s potential danger to the world with nuclear weapons – I do not believe that the scientists in both Iran or elsewhere in the world should be held responsible for the potential consequences of their ground-breaking advances.
It is not for the scientific researcher to question the possible repercussions that they may receive for their technological advances, it is their job to explore the boundaries of science to their full and break down the walls of our complicated and still largely understood the world. Many would and do argue that research for example into genetic engineering is completely wrong and that scientists should not “play God”. However, activities such as stem-cell research are allowing scientists to explore avenues that may have never been thought imaginable, such as the ability that healthy tissue could be regenerated for humans2 (New Scientist, 2007).
However even when the results of crucial research just begin to reveal the possibilities for the future health and well-being of the human race, they are often branded as “morally unacceptable” and “a form of cannibalism” 3 (Prof. Jack Scarisbrick, Anti-Abortion group Life, 1998). While the methods used in this particular research – using tissue from aborted fetuses – may fly in the face of deeply-seeded religious and moral views, the clear benefits of the research cannot be reputed and the scientists should be commended for their work. Just because their research is controversial, does not mean that responsibility for these so-called immoral acts should be placed on them when their intention is to benefit the health of people worldwide.
The subject of artificial intelligence is an equally interesting issue, raising concerns that the human race will become less emotional and consequence-based and more contract-based in its ethical reasoning. Since Alan Turing first published research into the issue over fifty years ago in 19504 (Brookshear, 2007, p456), whereby computers could be developed to “think” in a pre-programmed and logical manner similar to humans, there have been many new developments by researchers. Honda has spent twenty years developing its ASIMO humanoid robot5 (Honda Online) in an effort to make machine mimic man, while the HipNav system was developed to assist the welfare and treatment of man by aiding surgeons in the field of crucial hip replacements through the use of 3D visionary and robotically guided controls6 (Carnegie Mellon University website, 1999).
After considering the issues outlined, I believe that responsibility is not something that a scientific researcher should have to take into consideration when conducting their work. The role of the researcher is to make progress in the world of science, whether this is in the field of genetic engineering, artificial intelligence or nuclear power. The overall aim and the common goal of all those connected with this research and experimentation are to ascertain new techniques, directions and in many cases cures for problems that the world face.
There are clear dangers posed by nuclear research and “without skilled nuclear engineers we cannot safely…come up with the best solutions to the problems of managing nuclear waste” 7 (Nuclear Power, EPSRC). And with continuing research, scientists are able to experiment with safer methods of harnessing the sustainable yet potentially dangerous power of nuclear energy. I do not believe the scientists should be responsible for knowledge revealed by their research being placed in the “wrong hands”, and strongly feel that hindering their research will be more damaging than taking steps to prevent abuse of the technology.
With regards to genetic research and the term commonly used “designer babies” 8 (Time, 1999, P1), there is clearly a moral issue with regards to the ability to potentially choose genetic traits in a parent’s unborn child 8 (Time, 1999. P1). The ability, for example, to prevent inherited diseases and conditions from being passed down to a child is of great interest for the health of the human race, and just because some parents would like to choose the sex of their babies 8 (Time, 1999, P2) does not mean that scientists should be held responsible for the actions of few.
Equally, with artificial intelligence, continual research I feel is very important although as Prof. Nigel Shadbolt was quoted as say, they should ensure that an off switch of types is built in so that “…the human designers, understand the ethical implications and how we build the override and safety into these systems” 9 (The Naked Scientists, 2007).
Overall I would like to conclude by saying categorically that I do not believe the scientists should be held responsible for their results, or the actions of few in regards to issues on grounds of morality or world safety. The scientists only conduct the crucial research, it is up to the world as to how their work is implemented.
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