From climate change and science education to energy and the space program, President Barack Obama will be faced with a host of pressing issues in science, medicine and technology when he takes office in January. The choices he makes – and the actions he takes – will affect all of us, immediately and far into the future, in ways both obvious and unforeseen.
Which problems should he tackle first? What is the top priority? What is most important? We asked local scientists, doctors, teachers and thinkers for their ideas and insights.
Here is a continuation of what they said:
Equip nation to deal with ethical issues
in science, technology
File photoMichael Kalichman
Our choices about how best to promote science or technology are very much ethical choices. What will produce the most benefit? What will cause the least harm? What will and will not count in our definitions of benefit and harm? Who decides?
These are all questions of ethics and they are all questions that we expect our elected leaders to answer. Although we face many specific scientific and technological challenges, there are several challenges that are fundamental to science in general. In the short term, we are in great need of clear advice informed by the best possible information and analysis.
Both President Clinton and President Bush created ethics councils to offer advice on bioethics issues. These councils included many of our most outstanding and thoughtful scholars, but we need to do better in several ways:
Create a council for science and technology ethics. Nearly every major issue on the minds of the general public is largely dependent on scientific and technological innovation. Global warming, energy independence, security, healthcare, genomic medicine and food production are only a few examples of the many domains in which innovation is crucial, but in which difficult ethical questions must also be addressed.
By forming the Research Ethics Program in 1997, UCSD made a clear commitment to having ethical exploration as part of the fabric of conducting important world-class research.
By the creation of San Diego's Center for Ethics in Science and Technology in 2003, our community created a forum to engage the public and academic community in addressing the most controversial issues in the ethics of new developments in science and technology.
In the same way, the next president should promote this vital national conversation by convening an advisory council that will focus not just on spurring advances in science and technology but on navigating the ethical challenges that accompany those advances.
The Ethics Council should work directly with the president's science advisor. The advisory council should have a central role in unbiased national policy development. A case can be made that past bioethics councils have been perceived as politically driven at worst and ineffectual at least.
A new Council for Science and Technology Ethics should be appointed to work closely with the president's science advisor. Appointments of the Council and the Advisor should be based on credentials in the scientific community, not on ideology.
Rejuvenate science education. The U.S. prides itself on being an international leader in science and technology. By many measures, this remains true. However where we are today is because of investments made in the past. If we look forward, we have reason to doubt the future. Measures of student performance in science and technology have found the United States to be dropping further and further behind other nations.
And repeated studies have demonstrated an alarming level of scientific illiteracy in the general population. This means a lack of fundamental knowledge, such as “How long does it take the Earth to go around the sun?”
But more importantly, the general public more often than not lacks a basic understanding of how science is done or how to think critically. The goal, scientific literacy, is a minimum that we can and should expect of our educational system.
To the extent that we are not meeting this goal, the solution is not likely to be found by new innovative teaching methods or by coming up with more tests to see if performance is improving. Those measures have been tried frequently.
We are most likely to see improvement if we first attract those who are excited and knowledgeable about science to be teachers of science. This will clearly cost a great deal at a time when resources are scarce. However, as with any successful business, this is the kind of investment we need to make now. To do otherwise means that the next generation will be unprepared to either fill the ranks of scientists or to form an informed electorate.
Don't sacrifice basic science. An adage known to most of us is that it is better to teach someone to fish than to simply give them a fish.
Unfortunately, much of the way science is now done violates this basic principle. It's easy to choose the quick fix of only giving someone a fish or of only pursuing that science which we believe will readily yield a profitable (and hopefully useful) product. There is some merit in this strategy.
However, the nature of science in particular, and of knowledge in general, is that we don't know what we don't know. This is why it is important to keep our hand in basic, exploratory research that may not have any obvious or immediate application. Such research provides a necessary foundation on which we can build specific, targeted research products.
If it isn't the role of the government to provide that foundation, then whose role is it?
Make ethics a part of science. Every stage of the conduct of science is invested with ethical challenges. Which research should be done? Which methods will be used? How will data be collected, stored, and shared? When will the results be shared with others, if at all? How will the findings be interpreted and used?
Each of these questions is a reminder that science does not occur in a vacuum. Scientists need to be aware of the ethical dimensions of what they do and they need to be part of a dialogue that includes the public that provides the financial and regulatory framework that makes the research possible.
Scientists should be equipped to address these ethical challenges. And that will only be possible if ethics is seen as part of the science, not separate from the science. The next president can meet this working to extend existing models for federal funding that directly tie a small amount of funding for ethics training or research to the funding for the research.
Director, UCSD Research Ethics Program
Co-director and Co-founder, Center for Ethics in Science and Technology