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Ethics in Science

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Ethics in Science
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Believe it or not, the tree bark in this photo contains a revolutionary anti-cancer drug. For almost a decade after the drug was discovered, the trees, called Pacific yews, were stripped of their bark so chemists could extract the drug for cancer patients. Stripping the bark harmed the trees. This situation posed an ethical problem.

What Is Ethics?

Ethics refers to deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. Making ethical decisions involves weighing right and wrong in order to make the best choice. The ethical problem of the Pacific yew has both right and wrong aspects. It’s right to save lives with the cancer drug that comes from the tree bark, but it’s wrong to endanger the tree and risk its extinction.

Q: What do you think is the most ethical decision about the Pacific yew? Should the bark be used to make the drug and possibly save human lives? Or should this be prohibited in order to protect the tree from possible extinction?

A: This is tough ethical dilemma, and there is no right or wrong answer. Ethical dilemmas such as this often spur scientists to come up with new solutions to problems. That’s what happened in the case of the Pacific yew. Scientists tackled and solved the problem of determining the chemical structure of the anti-cancer drug so it could be synthesized in labs. This is a win-win solution to the problem. The synthetic drug is now available to save lives, and the trees are no longer endangered by being stripped of their bark.

Ethical Rules in Science

Ethics is an important consideration in science. Scientific investigations must be guided by what is right and what is wrong. That’s where ethical rules come in. They help ensure that science is done safely and that scientific knowledge is reliable. Here are some of the ethical rules that scientists must follow:

  • Scientific research must be reported honestly. It is wrong and misleading to make up or change research results.
  • Scientific researchers must try to see things as they really are. They should avoid being biased by the results they expect or hope to get.
  • Researchers must be careful. They should do whatever they can to avoid errors in their data.
  • Researchers must inform coworkers and members of the community about any risks of their research. They should do the research only if they have the consent of these groups.
  • Researchers studying living animals must treat them humanely. They should provide for their needs and take pains to avoid harming them.
  • Researchers studying human subjects must tell their subjects that they have the right to refuse to participate in the research. Human subjects also must be fully informed about their role in the research, including any potential risks. You can read about a terrible violation of this ethical rule in the Figure below .

From the 1930s to 1970s, medical researchers (including the one pictured here) studied the progression of a serious disease in hundreds of poor men in Alabama. They told the men they were simply receiving free medical care. They never told the men that they had the disease, nor were the men treated for the disease when a cure was discovered in the 1940s. Instead, the study continued for another 25 years. It came to an end only when a whistleblower made it a front-page story around the nation.

Science and Everyday Ethical Decisions

Sometimes, science can help people make ethical decisions in their own lives. For example, scientific evidence shows that certain human actions—such as driving cars that burn gasoline—are contributing to changes in Earth’s climate. This, in turn, is causing more severe weather and the extinction of many species. A number of ethical decisions might be influenced by this scientific knowledge.

Q: For example, should people avoid driving cars to work or school because it contributes to climate change and the serious problems associated with it? What if driving is the only way to get there? Can you think of an ethical solution?

A: This example shows that ethical decisions may not be all or nothing. For example, rather than driving alone, people might carpool with others. This would reduce their impact on climate change. They could also try to reduce their impact in other ways. For example, they might turn down their thermostat in cold weather so their furnace burns less fuel.

Summary

  • Ethics refers to deciding what’s right and what’s wrong.
  • Scientific investigations must be guided by ethical rules. The rules help ensure that science is done safely and that scientific knowledge is reliable.
  • Sometimes science can help people make ethical decisions in their own lives, but other factors usually must be considered as well.

Vocabulary

  • ethics : Rules for deciding between right and wrong.

Practice

Read this news article about a recent case of scientific fraud, and then answer the questions below.

http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/735354

  1. What ethical rules in science did the researchers violate?
  2. What were the negative consequences of their unethical behavior?

Review

  1. What is ethics?
  2. List two ethical rules in science.
  3. Think of a personal decision a young person might have to make. Identify the “rights” and “wrongs” of possible choices, and explain which choice you think is more ethical.

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