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How to deal with the vexed questions of ethics, science and technology

By Fiona Solomon - posted Tuesday, 30 March 2004

Ethics, science and technology have brought us both age-old questions and pressing contemporary challenges. Increasing public scepticism and environmental consciousness have created an ambivalent position for science and technology with both "goodie" and "baddie" roles.

On the one hand, there have clearly been dystopian outcomes of scientific and technological work, for example the proliferation of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, science and technology is still being relied upon for solutions to the myriad of challenges that face modern societies. For example, the development of "clean energy" technologies (such as wind and solar) present a different kind of role for science and technology - one that is looking to deliver society’s emancipation.

These tensions become further complicated by the interrelationships of science with commercial interests and with the increasing technical complexity of our world. Now more than ever, it is important that private and public-sector science and technology organisations understand and respond to the questions and concerns raised by these new ethical challenges.


While there is an established track record of considering ethical issues in some areas of research (such as those involving animals or human health), the consideration of ethical questions in many other emerging science and technology domains is still embryonic. While some research scientists and technologists see ethics as a distraction, or something that is not relevant to them, an increasing number are keen to explore the social and ethical dilemmas that modern science and technology can present.

The "hot" research area of nanotechnology provides an example of what a consideration of ethics might mean. Nanotechnology is a new arena for science and engineering endeavour but the claims for its potential impact are immense and the ethical challenges are potentially profound.

Nanotechnology exploits properties that emerge at the nanometre scale. Scientists are finding that when many materials are reduced to less than 50 nanometres, they behave and interact in unexpected ways lending themselves to new applications. Nanotechnology is already being incorporated into products such as sunscreens, plastic products, car parts, inks, immunodiagnostic sensors, and new generation batteries and has the potential to become embedded in every part of our daily lives.

The potential social and ecological impacts of nanotechnology highlight, and make more urgent, questions about the broader implications of this new emerging technology. Activist groups have already identified that ethical, social and legal research on this topic is still embryonic and is lagging significantly behind the science push.

Many of the ethical issues and challenges of nanotechnology are broadly social rather than individual. These include issues around social justice and equity (who will benefit, how will developing countries have a voice), value-rationalities (which differ about technology, development and progress), privacy and security (surveillance, detection, control), ecological impacts, and the human-machine interface. These tend to be more complex to understand, negotiate and navigate than just a simple yes or no to nanotechnology.

While no one can give complete answers to these questions, partial answers will contribute to an ongoing ethical dialogue and to decisions that need to be made at points in time.


In considering new technology, there is an important role for social science with its ability to ask and explore questions involving values. For example, the social sciences have strengths in exploring the governance of technological change, the evaluation of risk and opportunity under uncertainty, and the role of new technology in ameliorating or accentuating social and economic inequity. Social science theory in areas such as philosophy and sociology of science, democracy and public participation, power and rationality, and social justice have much to offer a more interdisciplinary research program.

One example of an organisational response to these issues is CSIRO’s Emerging Science Initiative where "Social and Economic Integration" (SEI) has been included alongside fields such as Nanotechnology and Complex Systems. The SEI initiative seeks to support new areas of integration of the social and economic sciences with other scientific and technological research and development. New projects in areas such as the social issues of nanotechnology, environmental decision analysis, management of multiple land use opportunities in the outback, the costs and benefits of climate change, and organisational learning have commenced. These projects engage with broad issues such as sustainable development, justice and equity, and knowledge and culture and highlight the growing need for scientific endeavours to understand the context in which they take place and the potential consequences of discovery and commercialisation.

In practice, science and technology is not neutral or value-free. We must recognise that the social context of diverse and competing values is a playing field where science kicks around its ball. The weather, the crowd, the umpires, the coaches, the sponsors, the skills of the team and even what they had for breakfast can all influence how the game is played and the final score. Understanding this "playing field" of values enables us to more clearly articulate the ethical challenges and dilemmas of modern science.

While the SEI initiative in CSIRO is still young, the investment in this area is being made with the expectation that there will be positive benefits from an enhanced understanding of the social (and economic) context of science. Understanding this context offers the potential for science to better engage with an increasingly sceptical public on issues, with an increased appreciation of its own role and position. Ethical reflection can also encourage greater inter-disciplinarity, as the knowledge and skills of the law specialist, sociologist or philosopher can be brought into the mix. Ethical reflection also encourages critical reflection generally, both at a project level and at a policy level. As dissent has always been one of the main engines for scientific progress, it would appear that in this sense, too, a critical and ethical dialogue about modern science is crucial.

Scientists and technologists, along with other professions, are no longer seen by the public as "benign experts" making it important to acknowledge and explore these issues explicitly. There are clear ethical challenges, not just in "high science" such as nanotechnology, but also in every day science and technology choices. Some of these issues require individual ethical judgment; others however are profoundly collective and complex choices about the sorts of organisations, societies and futures that we want. It is important that our ideas about "we" are broadly inclusive when we make these significant decisions.

As Einstein has noted, "science tells us what is, not what should be". The "should be" discussion is part of a broad ethical dialogue in which the scientific and technological perspective, along with other perspectives, has much to contribute.

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Article edited by Fiona Armstrong.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article appeared in The Canberra Times on 18 March 2004 and is based on an article in Focus, magazine of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.

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About the Author

Dr Fiona Solomon is leader of the Social Values/Sustainable Development team at CSIRO Minerals and has led a number of research projects on social and sustainability issues around the minerals industry in Australia. For the last 18 months, Fiona has also been on a part-time secondment to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Australia leading a project exploring the feasibility of independent certification for the mining industry.

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