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Science as an ethical vocation.

In his classic essay, "Science as a Vocation," Max Weber observed: "Natural science gives us an answer to the question of what we must do if we wish to master life technically. It leaves quite aside ... whether we should and do wish to master life technically and whether it ultimately makes sense to do so." But, is it really the case, as Weber maintained, that the values of science are in "irreconcilable conflict" with those of ethics and politics? Some recent documents and debates suggest instead that the vocational integrity of science is defined through its intersection with the values of these other spheres.

"On Being a Scientist," published by a National Academy of Sciences committee, is intended to inform students beginning scientific research "how important they are to safeguarding the integrity of the scientific enterprise." The document identifies some of the "personal and professional issues" researchers confront, including how "philosophical, religious, cultural, political, and economic values can shape scientific judgement in fundamental ways." Can holding such values harm a person's science?: "In many cases, the answer has to be yes." To avoid biases in their work due to value presuppositions, the NAS committee nevertheless encourages scientists to study the history, philosophy, and sociology of science as a way of identifying "their own values and the effects those values have on their science."

In addition, science's "social" mechanisms, including the free exchange of ideas and peer verification, and a basis of trust and honesty among members of the scientific community, can work to minimize "the distorting influences of social and personal values." Such mechanisms also are important to maintain the "ethos of science," which is violated by fraud, misappropriation of credit, or plagiarism. While disdaining specific guidelines for instances of scientific misconduct the NAS committee affirms that "researchers have a professional and ethical obligation" to respond in a way that upholds the integrity of science.

The NAS document concludes with a brief discussion of the obligations scientists have to society, including the "fundamental responsibility ... of dealing with the public." But how far does this responsibility extend should scientists become involved, for example, in the public policy-making process? This issue has provoked heated debate in recent issues of The Scientist, touched off by an exchange between prominent research chemist Frank E. Resnik and cancer researcher K Michael Cummings (2 October 1989, 11,13). In June 1989, Cummings issued a press release urging passage of a Clean Indoor Air Act by the New York State legislature based on his study of the effects of environmental tobacco smoke in nonsmokers. Decrying ... science by press release' to influence public policy," Resnik maintains that "a scientist's job is neither to push political or social goals nor to tailor research to that end." Resnik does not specify, however, the positive content of a scientist's vocation.

Cummings contends, by contrast, that it is "naive" to believe that science has no role to play in public policy. That "role" requires, however, a vocational compartmentalization: "It is not the duty of the scientist to make policy decisions. However, it is the scientists duty to make sure that the information necessary for intelligent public policy-making is available to those who do." Does this end justify press release science," bypassing peer review and verification of the study by scientific colleagues? Cummings maintains that "a scientist has an obligation to share findings that have significance to public health," and that in his own case, previous research published by the U.S. Surgeon General already established the risks of environmental tobacco smoke to nonsmokers.

Science," Tolstoy wrote, "is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: What shall we do and how shall we live?... Yet such questions surely underly the ongoing argument within science over its professional ethos and public responsibilities, manifesting an encounter with the ethical and political content of the vocation.
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Author:Campbell, Courtney S.
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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