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The hardest question for scientists

It shouldn’t be a question at all. But it often is. And how many scientists ask it? How many can answer with a clear conscience? Ideally, all.

The word conscience is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as: “Senses involving consciousness of morality or what is considered right.” The word conscience even has the word ‘science’ in it, from the word scīre meaning “to know”, or knowledge.

But this question of conscience goes beyond science.

There is one clear axis along which we are all asked to act in life – in favour of self’ or ‘society’.

Do we always do what is best when it comes to deciding the balance?

In all pursuits there is an innate tension between the interests of self and society. This tension has existed as long as we’ve had human society of any complexity.

Do hunters share their catch with the rest of the tribe or eat it themselves? Do mothers feed themselves or their children first? Do officials take bribes that will put their kids through college or accept the risk of rejecting corruption, with all its dangers? Do scientists share their data with colleagues or hide it away so only they benefit from the value?

Science is one of the noblest of human activities and scientific activities undoubtedly have immense positive impacts on society – but can also be put to misuse in the wrong hands.

The beauty of science is that it is a knowledge beyond human invention. It is the pursuit of a higher reality, ‘truth’. Science is a process by which we gain human understanding of the physical laws that run the Universe. Science, is by definition objective, repeatable and self-correcting. Old ideas cave under the pressure of new evidence.

Yet, even science is not immune to breaches of conduct – because its practitioners aren’t.

The highest profile examples involve faked data and claims of ‘sell out scientists’ who are the shills of commercial ventures that harm society – for example, smoking.

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Scientist and his microscope. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

While such cases are hopefully the exceptions, underneath these headlines lie smaller self-serving actions – some of which would not be amiss on a soap opera.

Daily academic life is rife with examples of offences against the ‘higher purpose’ of science to accrue human knowledge without bias.

Obstacles can include the rejection of new evidence, battles of egos, silo-ing of data, or sitting too long on a theory that is patently wrong, just because it is yours, as in the epic battle for acceptance of the theory of continental drift and plate tectonics.

When C should best stand for collaboration, it often stands for competition. Antagonists have it in their powers to secretly squelch grants, subvert peer-review of paper and invite only insiders to conferences, all to stay ahead of the game. Or worse, commit the ultimate scientific sin of refusing to collaborate if it weakens one’s position or strengthens a colleague’s.

Given this, the hardest question every scientist has to ask is “Am I doing this for self or society?”

In an ideal situation both self and society wins. The individual gets proper credit, esteem and personal satisfaction for advancing human knowledge. Science is advanced without hindrance. That is a win-win and there is nothing wrong with rewarding self. When it doesn’t harm society, that is.

It has been suggested that scientists swear the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath, or a “universal code of ethics for scientists”, just as doctors have for millennia and promise never to harm and only to act in favour of public good.

While few scientists in academia ever breach dangerous ethical boundaries, more might be vulnerable to institutionalized pressures to favour self in intensely competitive research environments.

Currently, features of academic life are stacked in ways that encourage scientists to put self first.

Showing ones worth often puts a scientist in direct conflict with duty to society. Scientists keep their jobs, and advance, based on esteem factors that are based on self-promotion. Key merit promotion factors include things like the number of papers you write, where they are published and whether you are the lead author. All promote the work of self. This is understandable but can put scientists, as people like everyone else, in conflicted roles.

Many scientists would love to change this landscape.

We should reward actions in science that help progress human knowledge and science – even over self.

To all scientists out there – how to do you answer the question?

To everyone – how do we best make an environment that fosters scientific activities that best benefit society?

Featured image credit: Bacteria, by geralt. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Bruce Knuteson

    We owe it to ourselves to make “Am I doing this for self or society?” a question easily answered with “both”.

    As you thoughtfully point out, in some cases the current incentive system makes this question hard.

    One can imagine other incentive systems that would make this question easier: perhaps a tweak to the current system; perhaps a fundamentally different incentive structure.

    As an example of the latter, suppose scientists could sell what they learn from their research.

    Until now, this has been difficult to do, and not just because nobody cares. For a simple, technical reason, the scientist’s product — information — has been hard to sell.

    The underlying problem is easy to state. If you want to sell someone something you know, you need to convince the person your information is useful and accurate. If you want to get paid, you need to accomplish this convincing before you reveal your information. Until recently, this has generally been hard to do.

    The solution to this problem opens up an alternative incentive system. Within it, some reflective questions, like “Am I doing this for self or society?” find an easier answer.

    Other questions, of course, may be harder.

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