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Ethical Science

Updated Thursday, 1st December 2005

Can science be ethical as well as innovative? Should it even try? Barbara Brockbank considers the issues.

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Dolly The Sheep Who sets the pace?
Historically, scientists have seen themselves as the key drivers in determining the direction of scientific research. In their choices, they were influenced by current trends, what interested or fascinated them and perhaps, most importantly, who was prepared to fund the work! But public opinion wasn’t even a factor.

All this has started to change in the last fifty years or so. There has been a huge public reaction to the advent of Genetically Modified (GM) crops; field trials have been sabotaged and stringent criteria are applied (at least in Europe) such that the presence of GM products in foods must be disclosed. The end result is that many supermarkets decline to stock them.

Plans are currently afoot to engineer crops like maize and tobacco to provide large quantities of drugs or vaccines at low cost. The need for vaccines in developing countries is enormous, not only for new diseases like HIV/AIDS but also to produce existing vaccines, which are currently very expensive. GM plants have great potential since they are cheap and easy to grow, and production can readily be scaled up to agricultural proportions. Public opinion has certainly had a powerful impact on GM plant technology and this is felt by scientists who are seeking to develop this technology. Many of them are demoralized by the hostility they experience and the declining research funding.

Who was to blame?
Ethical issues, put simply, consider ‘what should happen?’ However, sometimes it is important to reflect upon ‘what should have happened?’ Take for instance the current situation regarding well water in Bangladesh where between 35 and 77 million Bangladeshis may be drinking water containing arsenic levels that exceed the WHO safety limit. The number of people currently suffering from arsenicosis is about 7500. Some cancers that develop as a result of arsenic poisoning can take 20 years to emerge and so the final death toll could be much larger.

How did this come about? The people of Bangladesh used to rely on surface water, which was often contaminated with bacteria causing diseases like cholera and typhoid. In the 1970s, UNICEF initiated well drilling as a means of providing clean water. But, at that time, nobody tested for arsenic. This is now commonly found in the water drawn from the new tubewells. As the scale of the disaster unfolded, nobody was willing to accept blame. Those involved include UNICEF (which initiated the tubewells programme), the World Bank (a fellow sponsor), the Bangladeshi government and foreign engineers and public health scientists, who did not think to test the water.

It is important to look back and learn from what went wrong in order to put guidelines in place to safeguard the future. Was there a double standard that allowed this project to proceed in a manner that would be unthinkable in a western nation where stringent standards are applied to water quality? And why, when the final death toll could reach millions, has this situation attracted so little attention in the mass media?

Research: closed or open-ended
Looking forward, it is tempting to put restrictions upon the direction that scientific investigation can take. However, a case can be made for valuing the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake regardless of why it is carried out. This can be readily illustrated by the discovery of so-called Buckyballs in the mid-1980s; this was an unexpected by-product of experiments aimed at understanding the mechanisms by which long-chain carbon molecules are formed in interstellar space. Buckyball, which stands for Buckminsterfullerene, is a molecular form of carbon named after the architect famous for his geodesic domes, whose designs this molecule resembles. These unusual molecules are now being used as a vital component of an anti-AIDS drug. They bind to the enzyme necessary for viral reproduction, deactivating both the HIV-1 and HIV-2 types of virus whilst seemingly leaving other cells and organs unharmed.

Buckyballs are examples of a whole new area of science, namely nanotechnology. Nanotechnology involves studying and working with matter on an ultra-small scale, that of the nano-meter (one billionth of a metre). One goal of nanotechnology is to manipulate individual atoms and molecules to create computer chips and other devices that are thousands of times smaller than current technologies permit. Other applications include new materials with extraordinary physical and chemical properties, for instance, carbon nanotubes which consist of a layer of graphite rolled up to form a seamless tube with the ends of the tube capped by a hemispherical ‘half buckyball’. These tubes are 10,000 times smaller than a human hair, yet 30 times stronger than steel.

Alongside the enormous potential benefits stand concerns about possible side effects on human health and the environment. In this emerging technology, steps are being taken to learn from the experience of GM where science and public concern became disconnected. A number of organizations are emerging:

  • The Foresight Institute: a member-supported organization that has put in place ethical guidelines relating to technical standards and policies.
  • The ETC (Erosion, Technology and Concentration) Group: an action group that seeks to support ‘socially responsible developments of technologies useful to the poor and marginalized.'
  • The NanoJury: which brings together people from different backgrounds to form a jury whose role is to hear evidence about the future implications of nanotechnologies and thence to make a set of recommendations.

Where recommendations are made, only time will tell what weight they carry.


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Dolly The Sheep Stem cell research: a moral dilemma
Sometimes advances in science move so quickly that it is difficult for society to develop policy guidelines. Such is the case with the field of stem cell research (SCR) that is currently a source of intense public debate. For some, these experiments represent the destruction of emerging human life. For others, they could provide a cure for such debilitating conditions as spinal cord paralysis, Alzheimer's disease, cancer and multiple sclerosis; it would be a human injustice not to promote such research. In the heat of the debate, the different areas of SCR (which each have their own ethical implications) can get lost:


  • Embryonic SCR involves using ‘spare’ embryos arising from in vitro fertilization. Following fertility treatment, the unneeded embryos can be offered for adoption, stored, discarded or donated to science. Better to use them for research than to bin them, many would argue. This is probably the most controversial area of SCR.
  • At the other end of the ethical spectrum, is adult SCR. These cells can be obtained without the ethical conflicts inherent in using human embryos. Adult stem cells are undifferentiated (unspecialized) cells found among the cells of a specific tissue. They are mostly multipotent cells, that is, they can produce cells only of a closely related family. For example bone marrow cells can develop into several different types of blood cells but cannot, for instance, develop into brain cells. Hence the attraction of embryonic stem cells whose development is unrestricted (that is, they are totipotent).
  • Finally a technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) has been developed. SCNT creates stem cells by inserting the nucleus of a patient's cell into an egg cell that has had its nucleus removed. The resulting cell can be coaxed to produce embryonic stem cells, which are capable of transformation into a large number of cell types. Moreover SCNT creates stem cells with a distinct advantage over those derived from in vitro fertilization in that they would be genetically and immunologically compatible with the patient and could be used without risk of immune rejection.

Surely SCNT is the ideal solution? However, some would object because, like the union of sperm and egg during reproduction, this creates an embryo. The result of combining the adult human cell and human enucleated egg is a human embryo which if implanted into a womb, has the potential to develop into an identical twin of the patient donor in the same way that Dolly the sheep was created. In the public mind this may only be one step away from human cloning.

No area is moving forwards faster than that of reproductive technology; researchers are now able to make human sperm cells from embryonic stem cells. Soon it will be possible to do the same for egg cells. Although this technology is being developed for infertility treatment, stem-cell sperm or eggs could be used to make children for other individuals.

“It is possible that we could use this technology to make eggs from stem cells created from a man's skin cells,” said Professor Harry Moore, of Sheffield University's Centre for Stem Cell Biology. “Thus technology could help gay men have babies, though obviously a fertilised egg created this way would have to be carried to term by a woman. It would have the genetic make-up of its two male ‘parents’.”

There are as yet no governmental guidance as to how these ethical issues might be approached. It is something that needs to be addressed.





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