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Science and the military: an ethical spin.

Science and the Military: An Ethical Spin

The Second World War brought unprecedented military funding to U.S. science and technology. Aware of the distorting influences inherent in such largess, the scientific and technological community strongly supported the post-war creation of the National Science Foundation as an alternative source of governmental money.

Four decades after its founding, however, NSF remains, in comparison with the Department of Defense, a minor source of scientific research funds. DOD continues to control close to 70 percent of governmental funds directed to research and development, NSF less than 5 percent. During the last forty years the scientific community has continued to raise ethical and policy issues about the military funding of a number of specific projects, from thermonuclear, biological, and chemical weapons to the ABM and SDI.

In the belief that it was appropriate to reconsider the issue of the military funding of science, the Philosophy and Technology Studies Center of Brooklyn Polytechnic University (represented by philosopher Carl Mitcham) and the New York Academy of Sciences (represented by neuro-biologist Philip Siekevitz) recently conducted a three-day conference on "Ethical Issues Associated with Scientific Research for the Military." The intention was to steer away from more common science policy discussions in the interest of bringing together working scientists-engineers and philosophers-ethicists.

The conference opened with general ethical arguments for and against the military support of science. Robert Dinegar, an ordinance chemist from Los Alamos National Laboratory, gave not a utilitarian but a much stronger deontological-religious argument for the inherent rightness of the connection between science and the military. By contrast, Bernard Roth, a mechanical engineer at Stanford, developed a rather subjectivist position on the basis of a personal dislike of the military. Commentaries by Douglas Maclean (Maryland Center for Philosophy and Public Policy), Roger Shinn (Union Theological Seminary), and Paul Durbin (University of Delaware), sought to relate these and other possible arguments to traditions of secular ethics, religious ethics, and the philosophy of science and technology, respectively.

Three recurring themes in the presentations of the following two days concerned the need for more careful conceptual distinctions in discussing the military funding of science, the need for critics to adhere to consistent ethical standards when challenging scientists working for the military, and the complex character of professional ethics in a military setting. Wouldn't even a strong anti-war scientist have to support research on, for instance, bullet-proof vests? Critics sometimes lose sight of their own standards and fail to utilize the most accurate information when defending their positions. Given the fact there is much more "spin-in" than "spin-off" in the relation between military and civilian science, isn't there even a great deal of science that any consistent opponent of the military would have to avoid, no matter what its funding source?

Persons from the military attended and took an active role in the conference. Harrison Schmitt--scientist, astronaut, and former senator from New Mexico--argued for the moral value of U.S.-Soviet cooperation in the deployment of a limited SDI. Leonard Cole (social scientist, Rutgers University) and Shirley Liebman (biologist, U.S. Army Chemical Research, Development, and Engineering Center) presented strongly opposing views of biological weapons research. Given such circumstances and topics, a sharp exchange of views was to be expected. Nevertheless, a strong consensus emerged that although such interdisciplinary exchanges are difficult, they need to be promoted.

The conference was supported by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Proceedings are being edited for a special volume of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences and will appear during late 1989.
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Title Annotation:scientific research for the military
Author:Mitcham, Carl
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:May 1, 1989
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