Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Irresponsible Technician: What is the Role of the Scientist in the Biotechnology Era?

By Jean-François Senechal and Lyne Letourneau.

Published by The International Journal of Science in Society

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The nuclear bomb, test-tube babies, recombinant DNA, genetically modified organisms, and reproductive cloning are scientific achievements that have aroused fears and concerns among citizens. Conscious of the need to balance the development of new scientific knowledge with the maintenance of trust between science and society, scientists struggle with their social responsibility. This paper compares the concept of social responsibility as reflected, on the one hand, within the Canadian regulatory framework, and as implied, on the other hand, in the discourse of scientists such as James D. Watson, Jacques Testart and Albert Einstein. We identify two opposite normative forces, and suggest a way to reconcile this tension.
In the struggle for scientific knowledge, researchers are challenged by two normative forces pulling them in opposite directions, that is: acting for the benefit of society (social engagement) versus acting for the benefit of science (autonomy of science). To start with, scientists are invited to be actively involved in the betterment of society: to contribute to the common good, to respect the dignity and autonomy of human and animal subjects in research, and to ensure the fair distribution of benefits and burdens of the growing knowledge enterprise. Under such a view of social responsibility, a dynamic network involving university, industry, and government has emerged. At the opposite, other duties seem to propel researchers outside of society, into the “ivory tower” of science. Under this second perspective of social responsibility, what matters is strictly the autonomy and integrity of science itself. At this point, one hears of intellectual freedom, scholarship and collegiality among researchers.
Our view is that the tension created by these two opposite ideals is essential to the sustainment of a vibrant professional ethics in research. For therein rests the dynamic equilibrium upon which ultimately depends the vitality of a scientist’s ethics.

Keywords: Ethics, Science, Scientists, Social Role, Society, Academic Freedom, Common Good, Biotechnology, Bioethics, Biomedical Ethics

The International Journal of Science in Society, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp.73-82. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 532.127KB).

M.Sc. Jean-François Senechal

Ph.D Student, Faculty of Food and Agricultural Sciences/Animal sciences, Faculty of Philosophy, Laval University, Quebec, Quebec, Canada

Jean-François Senechal holds science degrees (Bacc. in Agronomy and a master degree in Agricultural Biotechnology) He is presently ending a Ph.D. in Ethics of Science. He is working on the social role of university researchers in the fields of science and agriculture biotechnology. In collaboration with his Ph.D. mentor, Professor Lyne Letourneau, he is giving a graduate course called: Ethic and professionalism in research. In this course, they explore researchers’ duties toward the ideal of truth (integrity) and toward their professional colleagues (collegiality). In addition to having published on Biotechnology (1999, «Seminal vesicle production and secretion of growth hormone into seminal fluid», Nature Biotechnology 17:1087-1090), Jean-François Senechal is now publishing on Ethic of Research and Integrity in Science (Chapitre III, Manifestations de la responsabilité sociale des chercheurs à travers l’éthique de la recherche, in Letourneau, Bio-Ingénierie et responsabilité sociale, Les Éditions Thémis, 2005).

Lyne Letourneau

Associate Professor, Department of Animal Sciences, Laval University, Quebec, Quebec, Canada

Lyne Létourneau is Associate Professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at Laval University. She holds a Doctorate degree in Law (2000) from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, as well as a Masters degree in Law (1993) and Bachelor degree in Law (1998) for the University of Montreal. Combining her legal background with an expertise in applied ethics, her research interests currently relate to the constitutive structures of the relationship between regulation and ethics in the fields of agriculture biotechnology and animal protection. Her research interests also extend to ethics and professionalism in research through her graduate course on scientific integrity. In addition to having published on animal protection law, animal ethics, and ethical issues raised by the genetic engineering of animals and plants, she is the author of L’expérimentation animale : l’homme, l’éthique et la loi (1990) and director of Bio-ingénierie et responsabilité sociale (2006). Lyne Létourneau was a member of the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee (CBAC) from 2002 until 2007.