Which ‘doors of science are best left closed’?

I was listening again to Martin Rees’s 2010 Reith Lecture on The Scientific Citizen for our Responsible Innovation work while I was doing my filing just now. (Still unfunded BTW if anyone has any cash!)

At the end of this lecture he urges scientists to ‘resist…dubious or threatening applications’ and talks of ‘a widening gap between what science allows us to do, and what is prudent or ethical to do. Doors which science could open and which are best left closed.’

This aspect of the debate on emerging technologies has been niggling with me for some time. Are there ever occasions where the world has ‘resisted a dubious application’? Occasions in which doors could have been opened, but because of the moral, ethical or social concerns of scientists or business have been left closed?

I wonder what Martin Rees had in mind.  I don’t know any do you?

IS GM one?

GM could be seen by some to fall into that camp, it’s the only one where the march of science and ‘progress’ was stymied in one corner of the globe. But this was not because government, science and industry had masterfully resisted a ‘dubious application’, or because, having listened to the views of society, it was agreed to ‘keep the door closed’. The ‘failure’ of GM in Europe is considered an aberration; it’s positioned as an example of bad public engagement, listening or promotion. Not a responsible and responsive action to the need for more information, certainty, evidence. Interesting that I think.

Different from barriers to successful innovation

Some may consider certain areas of innovation which have failed to get funding to fall into this category. They may not have been take up for reasons of the vagaries of funding and investment, the inability of funders to envisage the market or lock-in of certain technology areas preventing better solutions taking their place.  But I don’t think they count and that’s another issue for another day.

Let’s start a list?

I would be interested to catalogue the list of areas in the past where science, government or industry has decided it is prudent and ethical to keep the door closed. Maybe nano is one of those, as many of the bigger companies are reluctant to use nano for whatever reason because of social concerns. But again, not ethical concerns preventing ‘progress’, but ‘reputational risk’ reasons, or is that all we can hope for?

Does Food Irradiation count?

This is of treating food to kill bacteria which had potential, but which because of social concerns has not progressed. Though I believe it was not an ethical dilemma, but  more a case of the consumer don’t like it because it’s got the word radiation in it, but at least society’s concerns were anticipated and responded to.  Also, this is another technology, like GM, where current crises are suggesting might be worth another look.

Any more?

What about the future doors?

Of course it would be interesting also to understand the areas of current and future science on which we ‘should’ be firmly, but politely, closing that door.  Synbio and geoengineering are continuing apace, so I don’t see much evidence of those being beyond the pale.  Are there aspects of human enhancement, genetics or robotics where we really don’t want to go and where for moral or ethical reasons research has been curtailed.

If anyone has examples of either of these, please add a comment or send me a link to hilary@matterforall.org and I will post another blog with the full list….or maybe there won’t be any.  Or maybe it’s a daft question in the first place!

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