Social Responsibility


Author: Ruth Bulger, 2009


The motives which drive people to become scientists are many and varied. Some scientists are motivated by the chance to alleviate disease and suffering, others want to understand the mechanisms by which things work, others like the intellectual challenge and the joy of discovery, while still others may see science as a well-supported and respected occupation. In like manner, scientists (and institutions comprised of scientists) view their responsibilities to society and how best to express these responsibilities in varied ways. For a more complete discussion of the scientist in society, the reader is referred to the chapter with this title in The Ethical Dimensions of the Biological and Health Sciences (2002) or to the book by Resnick (1998), The Ethics of Science, An Introduction.

Here we discuss some courageous examples of how scientists in the past have expressed their responsibilities, reasons for scientists having such responsibilities, a possible spectrum of responsibilities from certain ones that are essential to the responsible practice of science, to others which individual scientists will choose to assume. Also discussed will be some ways scientists today can and are fulfilling their important responsibilities to society. Advances being made in contemporary science continue to present new challenges as well, which will require thoughtful efforts of scientists, working with others including the public, to define and act for the good of all.

One articulation of why scientists must seriously consider their responsibilities to science is stated in the preface of a book on the ethical dimensions of science (Bulger, Heitman and Reiser, 2002):"A critical feature of disciplines that call themselves professions is systematic reflection about the ethical traditions that govern them and their relationship with society. Such reflection is critical to fostering the public trust that sustains the professions' right to self-regulation and claims to authenticity."


Scientists through the ages have undertaken numerous socially responsible actions; a few particularly courageous examples are given here.

Henry Beecher, in an article in 1966, alerted the medical profession to 22 published instances of ethical problems he believed to exist in clinical research conducted with vulnerable and/or disadvantaged persons who were the subjects in their clinical research studies, sometimes without any semblance of informed consent.

As an exemplary demonstration of professional self-governance in 1975, a group of scientists and others led by Nobel laureate Paul Berg organized a meeting at Asilomar, California to review and discuss the appropriate ways to deal with the potential biohazards in scientific research being done using recombinant DNA molecules. They discussed the potential biohazards in certain types of recombinant DNA research in light of the scientific knowledge and of the containment facilities that were available at that time. The group called for a voluntary moratorium by scientists working on certain types of recombinant DNA experiments until safety was better understood. This would allow politicians and the public time to assess the real and/or perceived dangers of certain experiments that might have serious potential risks before regulatory decisions were made.

Hans A. Bethe (1997), a Nobel laureate physicist, worked on the atomic bomb during World War II because of what he thought was a life-or-death struggle with Nazi Germany. However, after the war was over, he refused to help with the development of the hydrogen bomb since he did not see the reason for this new weapon as there was no imminent war at that time.


Case Studies

Discussion Questions

  1. Are you as a scientist morally responsible for the applications of your research findings? What role do you think is right for you to play in this?
  2. If you are involved with research on RU486 (an abortifacient) are you contributing to the empowerment of women, to the disintegration of the family, to the killing of embryos, or to the increase in scientific knowledge? Is such an action ethical?
  3. In 1975, some leading scientists called a moratorium on the use of certain recombinant DNA experiments until appropriate procedures, safeguards, and limits were established. What do you think about this moratorium? Are there areas today in which a similar moratorium would be useful? Should there be a similar moratorium on the cloning of human embryos? Should there be a moratorium on xenotransplantation until proper controls for the possible spread of diseases from animals to humans are instituted?
  4. If you develop a genetic test to screen for a fatal disease such as Huntington's, what is your responsibility for recognizing, education the public or the patient, or helping to resolve social, legal or ethical issues related to the use of the test, such as issues with job or insurance discrimination? What so you thin are your responsibilities to the public to help them understand these issues?

Additional Considerations


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