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Ethics in science

Date: 22.2.2010 

Institute of Philosophy of The Academy of Science CR organised on February 17 a seminar "Ethics of Science in the Czech Republic". Such topic is very important particularly in bioscience. This was also reflected on the NEC Forum (13th Forum of National Ethics Councils Emerging Technologies in an Age of Globalisation, Prague, 4-5 June 2009). The seminar demonstrated the well known, but sometimes overlooked fact that ethics is a product of certain culture and time rather a generally existing natural law.

This nature of ethic rules was particularly apparent in connection with the human embryonic stem cells legislation. The dogma setting the origin of human individual at the moment of gametes fusion was established in 1869 by the pope Pius IX. Till then the church respected the thesis issued by Thomas Aquinas stating that the soul enters the embryo in the 6th week of pregnancy. Judaism and Islam do not respect recent ethic rules of Catholic Church.

Such difference is very important for science, since the legal regulations in the CR is based on Pope's dogma and hinders the scientific progress by time-consuming and restrictive duties.
More general are ethical problems connected with experiments involving human beings. Clinical trials are standard component of the drug registration procedure. Not all therapy benefits and unexpected adverse side effects can be identified using animal models. Even the science progress needs certain steps involving human being as an object. Many international documents and regulations deal with this.

Local but very popular is the ethics of public support and funding of science. In this respect the colloquium organised by Athenaeum for 21st century on September 4 brought very peculiar views on the ethics of science. During the discussion certain authors declared the responsibility of scientists for any adverse consequences or misuse of their achievements, e.g., for the atomic bomb etc. It was also declared, that public must express preliminary agreement with scientific progress and that public funds could be granted only on the grounds of public referendum. The seminar showed that such views were just marginal and the position of our philosophy community is quite rational. Anyway certain questions are still open. It is not accepted with one accord if funding research aimed as a support of company profits should be covered by the public science budget.

Ethical problems are also present in neuroscience. They are connected with methods scanning the brain activity and in fact "reading" the person's thinking. However most discussed are methods of molecular genetics. On one site the analysis of DNA can reveal the susceptibility for certain diseases, giving thus the route for preventive medicine and recommendations how to adjust the life style. On the other hand it may impose psychological stress on the person. It is difficult to decide to whom the diagnosis may be communicated.

It is not only red biotechnology which brings ethical problems. The green branch also generates "ethical evergreens". However this field is more complex. As the applications are targeted in agriculture any change they bring is touching the very basic essence of the civilisation. Consequently people are very sensitive and conservative to it. Agro products represent important part of international market being thus subjected to business and political pressures. The role of agriculture is now expanding from just feeding people to the conservation of the nature, biodiversity and forming the countryside. Recently the demand for "green energy sources" comes in the play. The isolation and purification of scientific and even ethical factors from such mixture is very difficult.

The crucial ethical problem of agriculture remains nevertheless the feeding the human population on the Earth. The facts are hard. The population doubled during last generation whereas the area of agriculture land increased just about 10%. More than that; the demand for better food led to the expansion of animal production pressing in this way on the plant production (one calory in meet needs 8 to 10 calories in plants). If we consider the worsening of the water supply, land decrease by industrialisation and climatic changes, it is no wonder that about a billion of people is malnourished and 13 millions dyed every year.

Therefore the biotechnology that can help to improve the food safety being in the same time friendly to nature must be supported. Unfortunately public is intoxicated by false fear of genetically modified crops. This is in contrast with scientific data as documented by the White book of Czech scientists.
The seminar was a welcomed voice calling attention to the role of science in the society. Science is not just tool for solving various everyday technical problems but also forms the culture of the society.

Author: Prof. Jaroslav Drobník




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