Science in Christian Perspective

 

Scientific Ethics: A Realm for Partnership?

by Catherine H. Crouch,
 9 Oxford St., Gordon McKay Labs, 
Cambridge, MA 02138, 
crouch@fas.harvard.edu 

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 52 (September 2000): 156-158

As policy debates over public funding of embryonic stem cell research have unfolded over the past year or so, I have found myself increasingly uncomfortable. Uncomfortable partly because the editorial pages of Science imply that the mainstream scientific community unanimously supports government funding of embryonic stem cell research and assumes ethical issues can be resolved along the way. Uncomfortable partly because I am convinced that from the moment of fertilization, a developing fetus should not be treated as simply a resource for enhancing the health of people who are further along in their development. Uncomfortable partly because I am a physicist, not a biologist, and am not sure I fully understand the scientific issues. And, finally, uncomfortable because I am not certain what to do with my discomfort beyond e-mailing comments to the National Institute of Health regarding their proposed ethical guidelines. What is a postdoc in applied physics to do about attitudes in the scientific community or federal policymaking in areas outside of her field?

Embryonic stem cell research is among the most visible of a number of ethical issues related to doing science. Some other current issues that come to mind quickly are closer to my field of expertise: global climate change, nuclear waste disposal, nuclear weapons testing and storage, and federal spending on missile defense systems of questionable effectiveness. With these issues, I feel reasonably sure I understand the scientific issues involved. But I still find myself wondering how to respond. Am I called to engage in the political process surrounding these issues, and, if so, at what level? Should I write to my Representative or Senator? Join a lobbying organization? Look for a job on the staff of a legislator or in the national scientific organizations that deal with these issues? Run for national political office?

As scientists in today's increasingly technical society, our knowledge gives us increasing potential for power and influence, which few of us use effectively, if at all. While my anecdotal experience is that many--perhaps even most--scientists are socially concerned, it also seems that most are not particularly engaged in policymaking. Furthermore, most of us are not prepared, either by our profession or by society, to think about the ethical and political questions that arise at the boundaries of our work. (Does anyone know of any Ph.D. programs that include training in ethics?1)

I suspect that there are two reasons for this. First, mastering and then staying abreast of scientific work is sufficiently time-consuming that it is not clear if there is time (at least until relatively late in one's career) to become both educated and involved in ethical and political decision making. (One of my coworkers has decided that he must choose between his concern for ethics and policy and his interest in research science, so he has taken a job with a policy think-tank instead of pursuing a "scientific" career.) I do not have enough time to keep up with all the journals related to my field; I have accomplished all I can hope for if I regularly scan over the potentially related abstracts. To become well educated in another scientific area, much less to become a sophisticated thinker on ethical or political issues, seems almost out of the question.

Second, most of us became scientists because of a love for the natural world and an aptitude for scientific reasoning. Ethical and political thinking and involvement require different skills than analytical scientific research. It is also less likely that there exists a single, obviously correct solution to any problem. We scientists, however, are trained to pursue the one right answer, and may find it difficult to deal with other kinds of problems. In my own work on improving undergraduate science education, I often find myself wishing that all students were exactly the same, so that all students would respond the same way to a given pedagogy, just as all hydrogen atoms respond in the same way to a particular excitation. I imagine a similar level of frustration arises for scientists who deal with ethical questions without simple answers, or for scientists dealing with political processes that often seem (at least from the outside) to function counter to all rational expectations. Retreating into the laboratory seems appealing in face of such ambiguities.

This is where we need each other. Jesus called his followers into the Church where individuals with different gifts or inclinations serve together. The challenges of living out the love of God in a fallen world are too big to tackle alone! To respond to science-related ethical issues, we need fellow scientists who are followers of Jesus to encourage us not to bury our heads in the sand, but to think with us about the scientific issues and to plan strategies together that impact the broader scientific community. We also need the rest of the Church. We need its rich history of theological understanding and experience on which Christian ethical thinking must be based. We need our brothers and sisters who have devoted their lives to acquire understanding in ethics and politics. If only scientists think about these issues, our ideas will be the poorer for it.

What better mission exists for a professional association of Christians in science than to provide resources and partnership for responding to ethical issues? Organizations, like the ASA and the Christian Medical and Dental Society, provide information on ethical issues for their members.2

This information could include materials designed to educate scientists about issues outside their own fields (for example, a guide to the biology of embryonic stem cell research written for scientists not in biology). Going a step further, such organizations could connect concerned members to opportunities for in-depth training in ethical and political issues, and can provide more broadly aimed workshops and seminars. Most important, such organizations can help members with common concerns to connect to other Christians with expertise in ethics or politics.

I want to find other scientists--particularly, but not only, biologists--as well as other Christians who are trying to think about embryonic stem cell research out of a Christian framework. I want to pray with people, who are broken hearted before God, over the brokenness of our world.

An obvious challenge to the connected community of Christian scientists that take on such a mission is the disagreement among Christians about how to think and respond to ethical issues. However, the ASA seems to have found a strategy for responding to the problems raised by teaching evolution, even though I doubt there is anything resembling complete agreement on that within the ASA membership. If the most valuable role that a professional organization can play is bringing together concerned individuals, then disagreement, if communicated in love and humility, can be used by the Holy Spirit to produce clearer thinking.

As I write these words, I am anticipating the birth of my second child in just a few weeks. I am acutely aware that not long from now, I will have even less time and energy than at present to devote to thinking about embryonic stem cell research, much less doing anything about it. But this is where prayer and partnership come in. I need partners, more actively working than I, who will encourage me to pray, and for whom I can pray. May God send such partners my way.

2000

Notes

1A number of Ph.D. programs provide training in research ethics, e.g., what constitutes falsification of data, appropriate use of information about others' research, and so on; I am more interested in training in general ethical thinking, which for a Christian would be grounded in theology.

2Some resources which are available for people interested in these issues:
The ASA web site  http://www.asa3.org    includes links to ethics resources on the web and ethics-related materials that have been published recently in PSCF.
The Christian Medical and Dental Society has an ethics commission which has addressed a number of bioethical issues through position papers: see http://www.cmds.org/ethics/
The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics has an extensive web site on embryonic stem cell research at http://www.stemcellresearch.org/
The University of Pennsylvania has a large center for bioethics, with information at http://www.med.upenn.edu/bioethics/