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What scientists ought to do for non-scientists, and why: Obligations of scientists (part 5)


If you're a scientist, are there certain things you're obligated to do for society (not just for your employer)? If so, where does this obligation come from?

This is part of the discussion we started back in September about special duties or obligations scientists might have to the non-scientists with whom they share a world. If you're just coming to the discussion now, you might want to check out the post where we set out some groundwork for the discussion, plus the three posts on scientists' negative duties (i.e., the things scientists have an obligation not to do): our consideration of powers that scientists have and should not misuse, our discussion of scientific misconduct, the high crimes against science that scientists should never commit, and our examination of how plagiarism is not only unfair but also hazardous to knowledge-building.

In this post, finally, we lay out some of the positive duties that scientists might have.

In her book Ethics of Scientific Research, Kristin Shrader-Frechette gives a pretty forceful articulation of a set of positive duties for scientists. She asserts that scientists have a duty to do research, and a duty to use research findings in ways that serve the public good. Recall that these positive duties are in addition to scientists' negative duty to ensure that the knowledge and technologies created by the research do not harm anyone.

Where do scientists’ special duties come from? Shrader-Frechette identifies a number of sources. For one thing, she says, there are obligations that arise from holding a monopoly on certain kinds of knowledge and services. Scientists are the ones in society who know how to work the electron microscopes and atom-smashers. They’re the ones who have the equipment and skills to build scientific knowledge. Such knowledge is not the kind of thing your average non-scientist could build for himself.

Scientists also have obligations that arise from the fact that they have a good chance of success (at least, better than anyone else) when it comes to educating the public about scientific matters or influencing public policy. The scientists who track the evidence that human activity leads to climate change, for example, are the ones who might be able to explain that evidence to the public and argue persuasively for measures that are predicted to slow climate change.

As well, scientists have duties that arise from the needs of the public. If the public’s pressing needs can only be met with the knowledge and technologies produced by scientific research – and if non-scientists cannot produce such knowledge and technologies themselves – then if scientists do no work to meet these needs, who can?

As we've noted before, there is, in all of this, that Spiderman superhero ethos: with great power comes great responsibility. When scientists realize how much power their knowledge and skills give them relative to the non-scientists in society, they begin to see that their duties are greater than they might have thought.

Let’s turn to what I take to be Shrader-Frechette’s more controversial claim: that scientists have a positive duty to conduct research. Where does this obligation come from?

For one thing, she argues, knowledge itself is valuable, especially in democratic societies where it could presumably help us make better choices than we'd be able to make with less knowledge. Thus, those who can produce knowledge should produce it.

For another thing, Shrader-Frechette points out, society funds research projects (through various granting agencies and direct funding from governmental entities). Researchers who accept such research funding are not free to abstain from research. They can't take the grants and put an addition on the house. Rather, they are obligated to perform the contracted research. This argument is pretty uncontroversial, I think, since asking for money to do the research that will lead to more scientific knowledge and then failing to use that money to build more scientific knowledge is deceptive.

But here's the argument that I think will meet with more resistance, at least from scientists: In the U.S., in addition to funding particular pieces of scientific research, society pays the bill for training scientists. This is not just true for scientists trained at public colleges and universities. Even private universities get a huge chunk of their money to fund research projects, research infrastructure, and the scientific training they give their students from public sources, including but not limited to federal funding agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

The American people are not putting up this funding out of the goodness of their hearts. Rather, the public invests in the training of scientists because it expects a return on this investment in the form of the vital knowledge those trained scientists go on to produce and share with the public. Since the public pays to train people who can build scientific knowledge, the people who receive this training have a duty to go forth and build scientific knowledge to benefit the public.

Finally, Shrader-Frechette says, scientists have a duty to do research because if they don’t do research regularly, they won’t remain knowledgeable in their field. Not only will they not be up on the most recent discoveries or what they mean, but they will start to lose the crucial experimental and analytic skills they developed when they were being trained as scientists. For the philosophy fans in the audience, this point in Shrader-Frechette’s argument is reminiscent of Immanuel Kant’s example of how the man who prefers not to cultivate his talents is falling down on his duties. If everyone in society chose not to cultivate her talents, each of us would need to be completely self-sufficient (since we could not receive aid from others exercising their talents on our behalf) – and even that would not be enough, since we would not be able to rely on our own talents, having decided not to cultivate them.

On the basis of Shrader-Frechette’s argument, it sounds like every member of society who has had the advantage of scientific training (paid for by your tax dollars and mine) should be working away in the scientific knowledge salt-mine, at least until science has built all the knowledge society needs it to build.

And here's where I put my own neck on the line: I earned a Ph.D. in chemistry (conferred in January 1994, almost exactly 20 years ago). Like other students in U.S. Ph.D. programs in chemistry, I did not pay for that scientific training. Rather, as Shrader-Frechette points out, my scientific training was heavily subsidized by the American tax payer. I have not build a bit of new chemical knowledge since the middle of 1994 (since I wrapped up one more project after completing my Ph.D.).

Have I fallen down on my positive duties as a trained scientist? Would it be fair for American tax payers to try to recover the funds they invested in my scientific training?

We'll take up these questions (among others) in the next installment of this series. Stay tuned!


Shrader-Frechette, K. S. (1994). Ethics of scientific research. Rowman & Littlefield.


Posts in this series:

Questions for the non-scientists in the audience.

Questions for the scientists in the audience.

What do we owe you, and who’s “we” anyway? Obligations of scientists (part 1)

Scientists’ powers and ways they shouldn’t use them: Obligations of scientists (part 2)

Don’t be evil: Obligations of scientists (part 3)

How plagiarism hurts knowledge-building: Obligations of scientists (part 4)

What scientists ought to do for non-scientists, and why: Obligations of scientists (part 5)

What do I owe society for my scientific training? Obligations of scientists (part 6)

Are you saying I can't go home until we cure cancer? Obligations of scientists (part 7)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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