Brews and Views: Trust Me, I’m a Scientist!

Scientist [ˈsīəntəst] — a person who has expert knowledge.

Brews and Views logo with people, brain, DNA, and gear icons

Last month more than 100 faculty members and researchers attended the latest Brews and Views session: “Trust Me, I’m a Scientist! Responsibility and Accountability in Science.” The event series, presented collaboratively by the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Institute for Quantitative Health Science & Engineering, features moderated discussions addressing fascinating and provocative areas of bioscience and engineering.

The event was moderated by Dr. Monique Mitchell Turner, Chair and Professor in the Department of Communication, College of Communication Arts and Sciences. Dr. Turner began with an audience response poll that asked attendees to consider both the role of institutional review boards regarding responsible and ethical research conduct, and the ethical obligations of scientists studying risky innovations that could potentially cause harm. Subsequent questions focused on the concept of dual use, which Dr. Turner clarified as referring to “technologies that alternately can be used for peaceful as well as for hostile purposes.” Regarding potential dual use harms, who is ultimately responsible: the principal investigator, the journal that published the work, or someone else entirely?

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Image description: an illustration depicts four scientists holding a double helix, beaker, atoms, and a magnifying glass. Image source: vecteezy.com.

Discussant Dr. Heather Douglas, Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy, College of Arts & Letters, examined moral responsibility in scientific endeavors, focusing on two qualities of dual use concerns, i.e., the intention of the researcher and that which might or might not be foreseeable. She clarified that when the ultimate use is readily predictable, ignoring the prospect of use for hostile purposes would be reckless, but unfortunately, many things are not predictable.

Dr. Douglas pointed out that the two checks on scientific endeavors include responsibility and accountability, but the conundrum is that those two checks are not necessarily synced — scientists can be held responsible for things which they are not accountable and accountable for things which they are not responsible. It’s reasonable to hold scientists accountable to good methodology, to their colleagues, and to society. But there are other actors who are accountable as well, including the institution (as well as journals that publish research). The paradox is that the more an institution enforces accountability checklists, the more an individual scientist might mistakenly feel that they’ve met their responsibility by simply complying with that checklist. Dr. Douglas urged that to be accountable, scientists have a responsibility to think beyond such checklists to imagine future possibilities including dual use concerns.

Discussant Dr. Victor DiRita, Rudolph Hugh Professor & Chair in the Department of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics, College of Natural Science, acknowledged that scientists need to be both responsible and accountable, but he pointed out that science “works” by advancing incrementally, building on the base of prior work. For this reason, he rejected the broad notion of dual use, since it is impossible to have sufficient imagination to accurately predict future nefarious use of any given innovation. To illustrate, he noted that dual use concerns are often related to “gain of function” in which research builds on and extends the capacity of previous work. He noted that governance, carried out through the vehicles of institutional policies is unable to predict such capacity extension, and therefore dual use itself is impossible to predict.

Dr. DiRita expressed worry that excessive focus on potential risks can blur the lines between real risk and perceived risk, possibly impeding the progress of important useful research. While institutional regulatory policies are well-intended, he is concerned about undue regulatory burdens in those labs that lack the resources necessary to be compliant. Moreover, he was in agreement with Dr. Douglas that such checklists erroneously allow scientists to believe that simple compliance with regulation is sufficient to meet their responsibilities, and that journals should share responsibility for publicizing dual use science.

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Image description: Pictured left to right are Heather Douglas, Monique Mitchell Turner, and Victor DiRita presenting to the audience at Brews and Views on January 24, 2020. Photo courtesy of Libby Bogdan-Lovis.

Brews and Views is collaboratively organized by Dr. Christopher Contag, Dr. Laura Cabrera, and Libby Bogdan-Lovis. Visit our website for more information on past events in the series.

About Michigan State Bioethics

Devoted to understanding and teaching the ethical, social and humanistic dimensions of illness and health care since 1977.
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