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30/08/2014

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A more ethical approach to science

Stuart Parkinson celebrates Scientists for Global Responsibility.

Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) – whose aim is to promote science, design and technology that contribute to peace, social justice and environmental sustainability – reached its 20th anniversary in June 2012.

Questioning military involvement

Stuart Parkinson celebrates Scientists for Global Responsibility.

Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) – whose aim is to promote science, design and technology that contribute to peace, social justice and environmental sustainability – reached its 20th anniversary in June 2012.

Questioning military involvement

Over the years, we have raised concerns about many issues including climate change, weapons technologies, nuclear power and genetically-modified crops, while also promoting sustainable solutions which take account of environmental limits and help to tackle the roots of conflict and injustice.

In the last ten years, we have focused a lot of effort on the problems caused by large-scale military and corporate involvement in science and technology. We have documented how such interests encourage narrow and short-sighted approaches to tackling problems such as international insecurity or global environmental damage.

One encouraging development in this area over the last decade has been a significant shift in UK government funding for R&D  – which has seen a 40 per cent fall in spending on military R&D against a large rise in civilian funding.1 Nevertheless, UK military R&D funding still remains markedly higher than that in some other major economies like Germany or Japan, and it is still focused on developing large offensive weapons systems which do more to fuel international arms races than improve national or international security.

Problems with engagement

Over the 20 years of SGR, it has been encouraging to see that professional science institutions and individual scientists have increasingly given higher priority to communication with the public, and that the nature of this communication has changed. There has been a move away from the old ‘explaining the facts to the ignorant’ and more towards ‘respectful engagement’. However, there are still serious problems to be addressed.

Firstly the role of powerful narrowly-focused interests – especially large corporations – in both steering research agendas and funding communication activities urgently needs to be curbed. Research Councils, for example, need to seek greater involvement from wider society to balance the influence of industry. Furthermore, the involvement of controversial companies – such as arms and oil corporations – in science fairs and museums is especially unhelpful.

Secondly, and more broadly, there needs to be a more honest dialogue with the public about the ways in which science and technology can be used, both intentionally and unintentionally, to harm individuals, society and the wider environment. Without such changes, science communication activity risks being just another public relations exercise.

A brief history of SGR

SGR was founded in dark days of the Cold War in the early 1980s, when concern about the threat of nuclear war was at its height. Several science and technology organisations – including Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (SANA) – were formed in this period. They aimed to provide the peace movement with reliable technical information to support their campaigning and to give a voice to many in the science and engineering professions who objected to the way that technical skills were being used to fuel the nuclear arms race.

With the end of the Cold War and the growing concern about global environmental issues in the early 1990s, SANA and other organisations merged to form SGR. Members felt strongly that the experience gained from working on peace-related questions should be applied to a wider range of concerns, including environmental and social justice issues.2

In particular, the organisation felt it should try to raise the profile of ethical issues across science and technology, both with other professionals and with society at large.

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Dr Stuart Parkinson
Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility. Find the organisation on Twitter @ResponsibleSci.
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Comments...

Coralie Young's picture

Alice Bell, Research Fellow at SPRU, Sussex, has responded to Stuart's article, in the March 2013 issue of People & Science. You can view her response here .

David Chester's picture

Ethics and the Science of Macroeconomics

Today we are recovering from an economic crisis that was caused by a governmental lack of knowledge about how macroeconomics works. This vital subject is actually a science (due to my rersearch about which I am open to discussion) and for which there is a responsibility to better educate our leaders and finance experts. Failure to do this is as unethical because it is throwing away the hope for the future. You may not agree with me, but until you see what I have discovered you are unjustified in rejecting it!

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