Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Exploring the Limits on Scientific Freedom

The Challenge

As research opens up the possibility for more and more sophisticated manipulation of plant, animal, and human biology, some argue that we must place limits on scientific inquiry. These limits may have real human costs. How do we make these tradeoffs?

What's At Stake

In May, Congress began debate on a stem cell research bill proposed by Sen. Sam Brownback. It is revolutionary-not because of its opposition to such research but because it represents an attempt by the United States government to ban outright a particular kind of scientific inquiry. Traditionally, Congress has used the power of the purse to encourage certain kinds of research (e.g., the Human Genome Project) and to curtail others (e.g. fetal tissue research) by regulating the federal funds available for them. This approach allowed individuals-scientists, entrepreneurs, even cult groups such as the Raelians-to pursue whatever lines of investigation they could find the money to support. The Brownback bill would make some forms of stem cell research-and the use of therapeutics derived from such research, even overseas-illegal. It is not just the United States that is considering constraints on scientific research. In some fields, the United States threatens to become the most restrictive. In other fields, such as genetically modified foods, the United States has permitted research and development that has been anathema in other countries. This attempt to place global limits on scientific freedom will have far-reaching consequences.

Critical Questions

  • Are there some areas of scientific investigation that we simply should not pursue? What ethical considerations might place a subject outside the realm of responsible science?

  • Who should decide the legitimate aims of science? Is this best left to the scientists themselves? To the market? To the public?

  • How do we create public awareness at the level of scientific sophistication required for Americans to participate meaningfully in the discussion of these questions?

  • Can the United States make unilateral decisions in the area of scientific research, or are these questions inherently global?

May 21, 2002

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