Research ethics

Not everything can be done in the name of science

Scientists do not have a total carte blanche to do precisely what they believe to be in the interests of their research. They always have to remain answerable for their motives.

Obviously scientists must adhere to the same constraints as others in society: they must treat others with respect, they must not be fraudulent, etc. They are even obliged to sometimes observe additional regulations, for instance when carrying out tests on animals, when dealing with nuclear material or when working with mutated organisms that may not be allowed into the environment. Those are clear-cut cases. Alongside that there is a large grey area where one has to consider, from case to case, whether matters are ethically reliable.
In the field of medical research, for instance, the interests of researchers and patients are not always synchronous. Patients only have one objective: to be healed. Researchers, however, are keen to amass knowledge. Just to give a classic example, when testing out new drugs one group gets the medication whilst another group does not because that is the only way to test the drug’s effectiveness. But in that way one group of people is prevented from being healed (or perhaps not as the doctors are not at that stage sure whether the drug works). image
“Because they know that the combating of illness is something that is of vested interest to people in general, researchers are inclined to exaggerate the importance of research for strategic reasons”, Dr. Philip Nickel remarks. “For example in order to get permission to do stem cell research they claim that it will help in finding a cure for cancer. Whilst this is not exactly untrue, such applications are still a long way away. At present what is really motivating researchers most is the desire to gain more knowledge about life’s basic mechanisms.” Nickel finds that scientists should not become guilty of giving such false impressions of things, not only because that is not correct but also because, in the long term, it can lead to disappointment and can undermine scientific authority. In the Netherlands, for instance, the appeal to vaccinate girls against cervical cancer was generally ignored on a huge scale which all goes to show that people do not indiscriminately follow the advice of scientists. As Nickel says: “That is a great shame, not because people should really be forced to do such things but because it demonstrates that science has clearly failed to convey why such action is desirable.”
Nickel maintains that it is important to establish dialogue, “even if, for instance, religious arguments are levelled to which a scientist has no answer. Such arguments must nevertheless be taken seriously since they are significant to many people. Scientists must, however, present their arguments. People are not always conscious of how research can be of importance to them and it is the job of scientists to continually and honestly keep on explaining that.”