The reference book giant Merriam-Webster defines the word “ethics” as “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.” The definition of the term seems simple, but, in practice, society can struggle to accurately define what is deemed “good” versus “bad.” This is due to the subjectivity of what “good” or “bad” may mean given the diversity of opinions, viewpoints, and experiences of every individual. To effectively define the term ethics, society as a whole needs to decide what constitutes “good” and what constitutes “bad.” Therefore, we as a civilized society have developed a series of laws and regulations that help us govern ethical conduct and continue to revise our interpretations of such rules. Science and medicine are no exceptions to this, as exemplified by the number of standards and norms that scientists and medical practitioners abide by (e.g. The National Institutes of Health’s Sourcebook on Ethical Conduct).
Ethical conduct in science is often described by the term “bioethics,” an all-encompassing term defined by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS, institute of the NIH) as “the study of ethical, social, and legal issues that arise in biomedicine and biomedical research.” This includes the areas of medical ethics, research ethics, environmental ethics, animal ethics, and public health ethics (also see here for another, longer definition of bioethics). The issue of ethics in science is nothing new and has a complicated history; there are low moments such as the infamous Tuskegee Study, as well as landmark decisions such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and President Obama’s Executive Order 13505 (pertaining to human stem cell research).
Today, the area of scientific ethics continues to evolve with new questions and concerns that impact both scientific research as well as science’s impact to the general public. For example, advancements with CRISPR/Cas9 technology have posed new questions regarding the medical and social implications of the technology (e.g. Is it okay to use this technology to cure disease? If so, what are the side effects and do they outweigh the gains?). Answering these questions requires consensus in regulation from various stakeholders including scientists, bioethicists, medical practitioners, policy makers, and the general public. Conversely, there are a number of current medical practices (illegitimate or not) that are easily interpreted as a blatant violation of ethics and need to be addressed (see our journal club reviews re: the opioid epidemic and stem cell therapies). Furthermore, it is also worth noting that though bioethics is concerned with ethical practices in biological areas, there are also a number of related ethical concerns in other areas of science and technology, such as the ethical use of artificial intelligence.
In the month of October, our CaSP social media team will be curating content related to ethics in science on our social media platforms. We will be exploring various aspects of ethics, ranging from the ongoing ethical discussions (as described above) to some of the history of scientific ethics. Please follow us on Twitter and Facebook to see all of the content.