Thoughts on Ethics in Science

I was reading an article in New Scientist on ethics in science: Immoral advances: Is science out of control? I found the article a bit light and arguing against christian attitudes that are caricatures, straw men. It's a pity that many leading Christian ethicists have shot their bolt on issues that seem trivial to most scientists but that doesn't mean that scientists shouldn't take the ethics and the consequences of scientific development seriously themselves.

For instance like many points of view expressed in New Scientist on Genetic Engineering. I see 2 important ethically related issues with GE.

Before I discuss them an aside.

Human knowledge and art have developed over several thousands, possibly tens of thousands of years or more, by collaboration. ie by sharing, ideas, copying ideas, parts of ideas, building on the ideas of others, adding to others' ideas, etc.

It is how scientists and mathematicians work, how science and maths started and developed. It is how most of scientific and mathematical knowledge is developed at our universities. It is how artists have always worked. It is a method seriously tried and tested over thousands of years. It works in a lot of different economic and political environments. We know it works because it got us where we are now.

The current tendency towards locking ideas up using intellectual property of various kinds is not only very, very new but unproven: there is no proof that intellectual property rights have any positive effect on innovation and creativity and there is even starting to be evidence of the opposite.

For instance: most modern pharmaceutical companies spend most of their money on marketing (Big Pharma Spends More On Advertising Than Research And Development, Study Finds) and much of the research they do do is on maintaining their patents. EU competition commissioner Neely Kroes said recently that this kind of patenting upkeep had cost Europe 3 billion Euros (Commission accuses drug developers of blocking rivals). The strategic directions that Intellectual Property rights gives companies like big pharma has set them in the directions of treatments for rich people rather than helping humanity. Consider also that much of the research and especially the basic research that produces new drugs is publicly funded research.

Intellectual property rights are causing issues that could endanger lives: recently Indonesia refused to allow its H5N1 virus to be used in research to find vaccines for bird flu. (Indonesia wants fair deal on H5N1 vaccine-minister)

Is this not an ethical issue for science, medicine and economics?

A few decades ago we thought it would not be possible to ever own patents or copyrights over living things. This barrier to IP rights has been passed already. Now I'm not going to argue just how silly it seems to me for a company to take the DNA of a plant or animal that has evolved over millions of years and possibly been bred by humans over thousands of years and add a small amount of DNA from some other plant (ditto with the evolving etc.) and declare that that company now owns the all the rights to that plant and its reproduction. Not even mentioning that the "adding of DNA" may be a scatter-gun approach that produces many different DNA variants.

Now companies claim to own parts of human DNA.

If we keep going along the road we're currently on, how soon will it be before companies will want to patent a human being and own that human being's reproductive rights? There's an ethical conundrum.

We have many people discussing "cloning" but cloning was always just a step on the way to genetic engineering. You have to be able to do it first but it's really a red herring, resulting in not a lot that could not be produced naturally. Genetic engineering, including of humans on the other hand is coming or is here already and will have huge ethical implications.

I think many people who understand what is happening in GE are very much concerned about the intellectual property issues involved in GE, much more than the GE itself. I think a lot of people sense with a "wisdom of crowds" kind of sense that something is very wrong in the GE field.

Because of those intellectual property rights we have big companies lobbying parliaments to allow GE crops that have not been through a proper peer-review process to prove or show that they are safe to grow, use or eat or even just let loose in our biosphere. The real issue is not the GE it's the ownership and resultant proprietary pressure brought to bear on our society.

Is science out of control?

Big Pharma Spends More On Advertising Than Research And Development, Study Finds

Commission accuses drug developers of blocking rivals

Indonesia wants fair deal on H5N1 vaccine-minister

Big pharma 'delaying' cheaper drugs
Kroes called for a new Europe-wide patent and a unified system of litigation to save time and money. "The lack of progress is very, very damaging," she said.
"Vicious tactics are used to delay or prevent the entry of more affordable and innovative medicines into the market," said Monique Goyens, director general of the European Consumers' Organisation. "Millions of euros are spent in promotional activities, in legal disputes and settlement agreements instead of in the development of new medicines."

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