Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Good Science Done Properly


Professor Penny Sackett is Chief Scientist for Australia.

By Penny Sackett

Scientists have a social responsibility to maintain high ethical standards in their work.

I am an astronomer, not a philosopher, but just as a galaxy or a comet is neither intrinsically good nor bad I am willing to propose that pure knowledge is value-free. Science as pure knowledge is thus outside the realm of ethics – only through human action or intent does knowledge obtain meaning or moral value.

Ethics definitely comes into play when we consider science as a human activity. Considerable thought and effort has been given to establishing codes of ethical practice for scientists, mostly formulated by and for individual scientific disciplines, institutions and professional societies.

These codes address issues such as the welfare of human or animal subjects in research, respect for natural or cultural environments, public health and safety, data management, and intellectual property rights.

Recorded cases of major breaches of ethical codes in the practice of research are few, perhaps due to the respect the codes command in the professions and the discipline of rigorous examination before, during and after the peer review process.

When it comes to the application of science by societies, science can be applied in ways that could be considered “bad” or “morally wrong” as well as “ethical” and “morally good.”

So there can be no doubt we are living in a world in which scientific ethics is important, no more so than when it comes to climate change.

The human contribution to climate change is not equally distributed among societies, nor will its detrimental effects be equally shared. Is this ethical, and what can we do about it?

By 2050 there will be around nine billion people living on the planet, about three-quarters of whom will live in giant urban centres far from sources of food. What is the ethical response to future generations, or to the non-human inhabitants of this planet, particularly as it is clear that we are living beyond the finite resources of this planet?

Given the pressure on arable land, transport, soil nutrients, water and greenhouse gas emissions, we are on track to see many, many more of our fellow humans starve or suffer malnourishment.

In the face of such challenges, what is the conversation that scientists and the rest of society need to begin around the ethics of the application of science in the food, energy and water arenas?

How can we achieve all this with appropriate levels of discourse in a population that is largely scientific illiterate or in a society in which scientists do not engage with their fellow citizens?

And how should scientists and society interact in an ethical world in which ethics is openly discussed and forms an important part of decision-making?

In addressing such questions I find it instructive to review the principles of the St James Ethics Centre to consider how they might align with the ethical conduct of scientific research and its application:

• be a genuinely independent organisation open to people of any (and all) philosophical or cultural traditions, whether religious or secular in nature;

• act with courage, compassion and integrity;

• be an integral part of the community and not something removed from the ebb and flow of daily life;

• base activities on a sound theoretical foundation, translated into terms that are accessible to all; and

• do not seek to impose your views on those with whom you work.

These principles provide guidance as we seek to define, question and thus redefine our personal and institutional ethics.

This process is both a professional and personal responsibility that comes with the privilege of being trained to undertake the creative and systematic thinking that is embodied in doing science.

The more vigorous, profound and influential definition and demonstration of our ethics must grow with us as we continue to advance the sum of scientific knowledge and apply that knowledge to contribute to a more ethical world for all societies.

Professor Penny Sackett is Chief Scientist for Australia.