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Exploring the ethical implications of scientific advancements

‘Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character’ Albert Einstein

The ethical implications of scientific advancement often spark debate and polarisation within both the public and scientific communities.


Previous (and ongoing) ethical challenges within science have involved concerns regarding stem cell and embryo research, gene-editing technology, artificial intelligence (AI), and many more. Within these fields and others, scientific advancement is necessary and, to be honest, unstoppable. Gene-editing technology has saved lives, AI has revolutionised the workforce. However, all scientific advancements must remain ethical, open, and regulated to ensure advancements do not harm anyone. Respecting human and animal rights, as well as ensuring implications of the work are honestly and openly considered, will allow for ethical advancement in scientific research. Scientific advancements should be brought openly to public understanding and debate to truly be for the good of the public, ensuring knowledge is not locked behind the ivory towers of laboratories. 


As such, science communicators play a vital role between scientists and the public. Enabling science to be understood both by professionals and the lay public will ensure that advancements are carefully considered and ethically applied. Creating such a ‘culture of responsibility’ through accessible science is vital to ensure we avoid unethical research to all extents possible.


Examples of previous unethical research

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1932-1972) is one truly horrific example of unethical research. This ‘study’ aimed to explore the effects of syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. To do so, the researchers left hundreds of African American men with this disease untreated, lying to them about their consent forms and their condition. Even after treatment for syphilis became available, penicillin, these men were still given false treatments for the researchers to continue to observe the course of the disease. Many of these men died or suffered from serious complications, like blindness, due to their untreated syphilis.


Of course, such horrifying cases of such extreme unethical work are rare. However, this shocking example goes to show the extent to which science can go if researchers push only for discovery, and not for ethical discovery. So, what are some examples of current scientific advancements that have an ethical discussion of their use underpinning them?


3-D printing

The world of 3-D printing has become a big ethical question, especially with the future of pharmacology. Currently, many tools and equipment parts are manufactured through 3-D printing to speed up the process. One day, we could be able to produce medication through a 3-D printer, enhancing the process to make greater, more accessible supplies of medication. 


However, this could also be dangerous in opening a new wave of regulatory questions surrounding these 3-D printed drugs. Who can guarantee the dosage, or that the machine did not malfunction and change something about the drug? Carefully considering these developments and not rushing forward with 3-D printed drugs while ensuring an ethical and useful development. 


Genome data use

Genome data collection and use have been incredibly beneficial for personalised medical treatment. Diseases such as cancer are now able to be understood and treated better by detecting the specific genes that are affected. Such procedures used to cost billions – now, the price is only a few thousand dollars. This brings huge benefits for life-saving medicine that can be personalised to one’s exact condition and manifestation of symptoms, saving people from previously life-threatening diseases.


However, ethical issues lie within the limits of this research – a decades-old question of ‘how far do we go’? If we can find and edit genes related to cancer and other diseases, many individuals have delved into the questions of genes for intelligence, or specific physical features. Essentially, ethics is a vital backbone to this research advancement to steer clear of eugenics. 


In conclusion, it’s complex to know what’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in advancing science – not every experiment is black and white. There will always be risks in the discovery of new knowledge. However, scientists must embrace ethical discussions as part of their work and remain open in teaching the public about the possible implications of their research. As Einstein said, in the opening quote, character is vital for good science. Developing a character with a strong ethical backbone within scientific research is vital for ethical and useful advancement for all of society. Scientists, science communicators, and the public must come together to ensure that advancements remain as ethical and responsible as possible.


Article Key Take-Home Messages

  1. Scientific advancements, while often inevitable and beneficial, must be approached with ethical oversight and transparency. Ensuring that research respects human and animal rights and is openly communicated to the public is essential to prevent harm and promote responsible innovation.

  2. Science communicators play a critical role in bridging the gap between scientists and the public. By making scientific advancements understandable and accessible, they help create a "culture of responsibility" that encourages ethical considerations and informed public debate about new technologies and discoveries.

  3. Historical examples of unethical research, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, highlight the dangers of pursuing scientific discovery without ethical constraints. Current and future scientific fields, including 3-D printing in pharmacology and genome data use, must navigate ethical challenges to avoid repeating past mistakes and ensure advancements benefit society responsibly.



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