Club sponsors science ethics discussion

3-19-09 Biology Ethics
Fourth-year conservation biology student and event chair Caroline Appleton, left, is flanked by philosophy sophomore Joshua Harwood, far left, and philosophy graduate William Brindley as she listens to a question posed by psychology senior Bronson Bowman during a panel discussion on moral responsibilities of science held in the Tempe campus Memorial Union on Wednesday evening. (Morgan Bellinger | For The State Press)
Published On:
Thursday, March 19, 2009
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As science advances, the ethical decision-making process becomes increasingly important, said members of ASU’s Bioethics Club, which hosted a roundtable discussion Wednesday evening.

Emma Zimmerman, co-president of the graduate club, said members thought the issue was important to address as students head out to the real world.

“Since ASU is one of the top 20 research universities, the topic of who limits and regulates science is very relevant,” said Zimmerman, a bioengineering graduate student.

Zimmerman said the club has not held such a large event since about two years ago, when the group held a Western conference for bioethics.

She said the club sponsored Wednesday’s event because they thought it would help students learn about the ethical decision making process from different point of views, as the panel members came from different areas of study. The panel included experts in philosophy, life sciences, history and engineering.

The first question that the club asked the panel set the basic discussion by asking panelists their take on whether there should there be ethical limitations in science.

Braden Allenby, a civil and environmental engineering professor, said by asking that question, people are already assuming that ethics matter.

“By asking the ‘should’ question, we assume that in fact, ethics matter at all,” Allenby said, and the initial question should be finding if ethics matter in the first place.

Associate life sciences professor Ann Kinzig agreed that the “should” implies that ethics matter. She added that the reason ethical limitations are widespread in situations is that they’re part of human nature.

“We do place limits on science, and some of those are ethical limits. And we do that because we’re humans,” Kinzig said.

Andrew Askland, director for the center for the study of law science and technology, said he thinks that ethics should definitely play a role in science, but that ethics are never absolute.

“Ethics are always contested. It’s not the case that we know exactly what they are,” Askland said.

A second question asked the panel to identify who gets to decide between right and wrong, regarding ethical limitations are in place in scientific research.

Kinzig said she feels if ethical limitations were not imposed in scientific research, society would feel the consequences, which is why ethics are based on society.

“It’s society that decides. What decides are the structures and institutions already put into place,” Kinzig said.

Hava Samuelson, director of Jewish studies, agreed.

“All of society is involved in the conversation — not just scientists,” Samuelson said.

Event attendee Ryan Sherry, a justice studies sophomore, said he thought key words such as “science” and “ethics” should have been defined at the beginning of the discussion, so everyone was on the same page. Also, he said he felt the discussion was too open-ended.

“I thought [the conversation] was interesting, but the questions were too vague,” he said.

Fellow attendee Stephanie Naufel, a bioengineering junior said she was glad she attended the event, and she learned a lot.

“I thought it was encouraging to see students actively engaging in discussion [about] ethical issues.”

Reach the reporter at abigail.gilmore@asu.edu.