Cloning - It’s Time to Stop the Cesorship of Science

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It’s Time to Stop the Cesorship of Science

How responsible are scientists for science and its applications? In a recent issue of the journal Science the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Sir Joseph Rotblat, proposes a Hippocratic oath for scientists. He is strongly opposed to the idea that science is neutral and that scientists are not to be blamed for its misapplication. Therefore, he proposes an oath, or pledge, initiated by the Pugwash Group in the United States (Science 286, 1475 1999). "I promise to work for a better world, where science and technology are used in socially responsible ways. I will not use my education for any purpose intended to harm human beings or the environment. Throughout my career, I will consider the ethical implications of my work before I take action. While the demands placed upon me might be great, I sign this declaration because I recognise that individual responsibility is the first step on the path to peace."

These are indeed noble aims to which all citizens should wish to subscribe, but it does present some severe difficulties in relation to science.

Contrary to Rotblat's view I claim that reliable scientific knowledge is morally and ethically neutral and ethics only enter when science is applied to making a product, for example genetically modified foods (Is science dangerous? Nature 398, 281). If genes are responsible for determining some of our behaviour, that is the way the world is - it is neither good nor bad. Knowledge can be used for both good and evil. Of course, scientists in their work have the responsibilities of all citizens to do no harm and be honest. Their additional responsiblity is to put their work and its possible applications in the public domain.

Rotblat does not want to distinguish between scientific knowledge and its application, but the very nature of science is that it is not possible to predict what will be discovered or how these discoveries could be applied. Cloning provides a nice example. The original studies related to cloning were largely the work of biologists in the 1960s. They were studying how frog embryos develop and wanted to find out if genes which are located in the cell nucleus were lost or permanently turned off as the embryo developed. This involved putting the nuclei of cells from later stages in development, including adult cells, back into an egg from which the nucleus had been removed to determine whether the genes in that nucleus would allow the egg to develop.
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