Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Dispute: Ethics vs. Research

As I mentioned here recently, our Leeds Metropolitan University has the nice tradition (well, at least since a few months) to post weekly ethics reflections on the web site. I often read them with interest, as they provide some background on current issues.

Recently there had been a reflection by a Leeds Met researcher who had decided not to accept research funding for a specific project because she had ethical concerns: she was not sure that the research would provide beneficial results.

This got me thinking about what I would do in such a situation. And, judging from the situation described in this exactly 200 words (as each of those reflections) essay, I concluded that I would have accepted the funding, out of curiosity, to really study the effect and make a well informed judgement about the topic of this particular research. Since the company who provided the research funding, was interested in this topic, then why not do the research? Obviously they did not have an answer to this research question yet, otherwise they would not be willing to pay money. And it is always interesting to extend the human knowledge - that is what research is about.

I was then quite surprised to read a reply to this reflection, in which another researcher expressed the same view as the original author: not to accept research funding if there are ethical concerns. I thought that I should write a reply myself, otherwise this would just be a mutual admiration society regarding ethics questions. And I decided to formulate my reply in a bit controversial terms: I wanted to get the point across that research is the extension of human knowledge, and that with this goal in mind, there should be no limit to the topic of research activities. Ethics principles can be derived from research activities, so research is above ethics. Of course I accept that the methodology of research is guided by ethics, but the topic of research must not be limited by ethics concerns. So I submitted my reply.

In the meantime, another researcher had posted a reply, somewhat representing my view. And a week later, my own reflection came online.

It remained relatively quiet - then some of my colleagues started talking to me about what a "dreadful" reflection I had posted...

Ok, I should probably not have used the example of the atomic bomb...

Here is some explaining and clarification of my viewpoint which I was not able to squeeze into those 200 words, as I just wanted to make a (provocative) point in that reflection:
I do not think that developing the atomic bomb was good. It was a devastating desaster for humanity.
What I meant in my reflection was: the research for finding out what keeps the atoms together was absolutely justified: to research the mechanisms, the amount of energy, the physical principles and natural forces that act between the neutrons, protons, electrons, needed to be researched. Experiments need to be conducted, to get quantitative data.
Not these experiments and research activities, but the actual development of this bomb should have been limited by the ethical concerns.

The main problem is: whatever scientists explore and research on, can be and will be used for military purposes. If one does not approve this, one has to completely stop all research and technology development. But even if most scientists would stop working on such things, there would always be someone who would continue... so the world does not become a better place anyway.

I believe it is important to study all natural phenomena and try to uncover their secrets - this is what scientists are for. And if the truth being discovered means that there is a danger of abuse, it is up to these scientists to warn about it, to create awareness and to work on mechanisms for preventing such abuse.

The world today is in a similar situation as before the atomic bomb: we are developing intelligent systems with our computer algorithms and autonomous capabilities which have the potential for creating great harm - and the "Hiroshima of the Information Science" is still about to happen sometime. But I do not think that research and development of such systems should be stopped - but it should be guided into useful and productive products and outcomes. One example of such ethically guided activities is the RoboEthics consortium, with the goal to ensure that robotic systems will not harm humans - or the environment of humans.

So much about the atomic bomb dispute.

Another thought of mine is that I believe, uncovering the truth is above everything. In the past centuries, ethics has changed significantly, thanks to the scientific discoveries with the freedom of enlightenment. The limits which previous ethics systems imposed on research ("the earth is the centre of the universe") had been overcome and enabled our current technological status. I do not want to loose this - if current ethics places a limit on what research can focus on, then we are in danger of again letting ideology and prejudice rule. Maybe there are things which we do not even know about yet, forces between the elementary particles which could be put to use, solving our energy problems. Maybe research can solve some of the unanswered questions regarding human life. There are plenty of answers waiting to be uncovered.

I received a reply from Cathy, the author of the original reflection. She pointed out to me that this proposed research actually would have to be done on humans, with possible side effects, and this was one of the reasons for her concerns.
Here I agreed with her: research methods must not be harmful to humans. And if by the research methodology, harm is caused, then of course this research method needs to be abandoned, and a different path to answering the original research question needs to be found. So I agree: ethics should guide the research methodology.

There will be more discussions on this. Several researchers have submitted replies which will be posted on the Leeds Met website. I will list the links, once they become available.

And in summer, at the INN Faculty Research Conference, I have been asked to be in a panel, discussion ethics and research and representing my viewpoint.


Here is a link to all the daily reflections - I created a frame web page for these. Needs to be resized to at least 1600 x 1200, to be readable.

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