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Ethics in science?
Ethics in science?

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2.2 Moral dilemmas in science

There are numerous examples in current or historical science that involve serious ethical considerations. A few are listed below. For each example, list some of the factors that should be taken into consideration. (Note: your answers are likely to differ from mine.)

  • Should we alter the genome of a human embryo?

  • While altering the genome of a human embryo could provide medical benefits, the question remains as to whether we should be doing this at all and, if so, whether this applies to all circumstances. For example, if we are able to edit the genome to prevent disease, should we also be able to edit the genome to choose ‘desirable’ traits?

  • Should we land machines, or humans, on planets, comets or other extraterrestrial bodies in order to study them?

  • Whenever we introduce something to an environment, we have the potential to alter that environment. But should this possibility prevent us doing this research?

  • During the Second World War, the Nazi concentration camps were the site of a large number of dreadful experimental studies on prisoners. Should we use any of these data if they have the potential to save lives today, even though we condemn the methods used to collect it?

  • The feelings of the relatives of the people in the prisoner of war camps should be considered. Who ‘owns’ the data? What benefit could analysing the data give? Should any data that arises from such an appalling source just be destroyed?

  • Can we justify the amount of expenditure on all scientific research?

  • How much is spent on scientific research? How much is spent on which areas of scientific research? Should medical research receive more funding than space research, for instance?

None of the questions asked have a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ answer; they are a matter of opinion. Think about what you would consider when making up your own mind about each of the questions above.

A moral dilemma arises in the case of Fritz Haber (1868 –1934). Haber was a German chemist who received the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1918 for the invention of the Haber­–Bosch process. This method makes ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen gases and is important in the production of nitrogen fertilisers. He also devoted much of his work in the early part of the 20th century to developing weaponised gaseous chemicals and he was an enthusiastic proponent for their use in World War I, for which he has been called the ‘father of chemical warfare’. It is interesting to consider whether the benefits of the Haber–Bosch process outweigh the moral issues inherent in his position on the use of chemicals in conflict.