In the modern day, science is a social enterprise. Once a research is published, there is common ownership of scientific results and ideas. No one shall be barred from using someone else’s research as long as they acknowledge them. In my previous article, I discussed the impact of Nobel Peace Prize 2017 on ceasing nuclear weapons worldwide. I criticized how leaders of nuclear weapon states turned a blind eye to potential nuclear threats on humanity. However, as we condemn politicians and decision makers, I realized there is a group of stakeholders whom we have neglected, those being – scientists who developed these deadly weapons. While they have only been involved in research and development of weapons, should they also be held responsible for the moral wrong doings that come afterwards? What is their role in peace-making?
As individuals living in a society, there are general responsibilities that we have to comply with. However, one should also consider role responsibilities of scientists when critically assessing moral responsibility. Role responsibility arises when moral agents adopt a particular role in society. Scientists are accountable for ensuring that the knowledge derived from research does no harm to people by preventing negligence and recklessness. Moreover, scientists should also critically assess the potential side effects of their research. Regardless of how beneficial knowledge is to the humanity, it does not shield anyone’s moral responsibility. For instance, the police force trained to maintain social order is not given power to torture during interrogations and investigations. Therefore, despite the collective benefits an action brings, there are still moral standards that people have to meet. Hence, apart from the general responsibility that everyone shall bear, it is essential for scientists to take on their role responsibility at all times.
According to Percy W. Bridgman, laureate of the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physics, one must dismiss scientists from moral responsibility so they can enjoy autonomy in producing knowledge. He also suggested that the benefit of science will outweigh the cost of factoring in moral burden. However, there are two reasons why Bridgman’s argument was highly refutable. Firstly, it seems that Bridgman adopted an utilitarianism approach in the evaluation of research morality. An utilitarian approach regards the best action as one that maximises utility. Nonetheless, it is hard to quantify subjective values in a complex society. It is impossible to consolidate a moral threshold which factors in the interests of all stakeholders. Secondly, it is also impossible for scientists to act autonomously, as it requires one to rise above and disregard the natural corporeal genetic and societal givens of our existence. However, scientists are bound by laws and are emotionally attached to other people. Thus, no one is truly autonomous, and Bridgman’s account on autonomy does not provide a valid moral standing. Scientists are highly educated individuals. It is reasonable to expect higher moral standards from them, especially as they have the ability to safeguard potential catastrophic consequences.
An example of how reckless behaviour of scientists would assist wars and hence lead to severe violation of rights, in 1943, Arthur Galston discovered a chemical which could increase yield of floral buds. However, when being used in high concentration, the chemical produces a deleterious effect on plants. On the positive side, the modified chemical that arose from further research was heavily utilized to aid the agricultural sector. Unfortunately, another modified compound was used extensively in the Vietnam war to destroy mangroves and rice fields. Intuitively, it seems acceptable that Galston is not responsible since he was ignorant of the sequential events. However, instead of being ignorant of the potential consequences, he was indeed reckless. Recklessness is when one knowingly creates an unreasonable risk to others. Under the given context, where America was fighting vigorously against the Germans in World War II, knowledge as such is highly susceptible to being abused for immoral warfare purpose. Before publishing his research, Galston was completely aware of the diverse application of the chemical. Yet, he failed to avoid the potential cascade of moral wrong doings followed by the discovery.
I believe science can take a step further to safeguard the peaceful use of innovations and discoveries. For instance, prior to the publication of a research, arrangements can be made with appropriate experts to submit individual papers assessing the impact and military potential of developments in those fields. The role of science and technology in upholding international security was added to the disarmament agenda of the United Nations in 1988. The broad aspects of technology were determined at a consultative meeting in 1989. However, in recent years, the discussion seemed to have died down a little. Scientific research continues to soar and will only go faster in the future. It is crucial for scientists to confine what these research can do in the future in effect to avoid inhuman use of scientific knowledge. Conferences regarding this issue should be held more frequently. Scientists and strategic countries can then come together to to promote peaceful objectives in scientific research and address related issues.
The issue can also be addressed in the early stage of the training of scientists. As a science student, I have taken units on bioethics as part of my degree in effect to consolidate my moral standards on scientific research. Since these units are not compulsory for everyone, many of my fellow classmates do not plan to undertake any of these units. I suggest that, like medical students, science students should also undertake some kind of moral education. After all, their knowledge acquired in university might manifest into something catastrophic in the future.
Modern scientific research is not omnipotent, scientists who discover knowledge shall be held morally responsible for their actions. Nowadays, science does not simply involve the pure discovery of knowledge, it is also associated with the interactions and implications to the society. If no one in the society is held accountable for one’s action, it is nearly unthinkable to enforce any kind of moral obligations or restraints on people. Scientists, as highly educated individuals are accountable for ensuring that the knowledge derived from research does no harm to people by preventing negligence and recklessness. With great power comes great responsibility, it is time to call for greater participation from the scientific community in establishing peaceful relations among countries.