To what extent can the regulation of scientific or technological developments be justified.

Author: Chirin Soh
School: Raffles Institution
Year Written: 2019
Grade: N.A.

“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.” This quote by Omar Bradley highlights the scientific and technological advancements that mankind has made in the past century. Scientific discoveries have shed light on our physical world, pushing the boundaries of knowledge. This has given way to cutting edge technology that revolutionised the way humans think and act. However, the immense power of such developments and the pace of breakthroughs have raised ethical and security concerns, resulting in the setting up of regulations in the form of ethics committees, legislation or international agreements. Such regulations can be justified if they benefit the individual and society through serving as a moral compass, prevent harmful creations and exploitation by profit-driven firms.

However, some may argue that regulations will impede progress and hinder benefits brought to society by scientific and technological developments. The nature of some kinds of research has improved lives and alleviated global problems. For instance, stem cell research can provide an understanding of how diseases develop and allow invention of new cures. In regenerative medicine, stem cells can also be used to replace diseased cells or grow into tissue. This can save millions of lives amongst those who suffer spinal cord injuries, type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, stroke, burns, cancer and osteoarthritis. However, the Bush administration stopped federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, which meant US-based institutes reliant on federal funding had to put the brakes on further development in this area. The Vatican has also called for a ban on embryonic stem cell research. This prevents the field from advancing and limits the potential benefits to society. Genetic engineering is also another field with a multitude of possibilities to improve society. It can doctor out genetic diseases such as Huntington’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Tay Sachs, Alzheimer’s and epilepsy. What was once thought to be science-fiction such as growing a new limb or altering genes to make “designer babies” could be possible. Genetic modifications to food can also improve its quality and quantity, making it more productive, more disease resistant and nutritional. The Golden rice being used in many countries is seen as the solution for Vitamin A deficiency among the poor. Regulations on genetic engineering is more prevalent for humans than plants or animals. There is broad agreement among many scientists, ethicists, policymakers, and the public that germline editing is a red line that should not be crossed. Using germline editing for reproduction is prohibited by law in more than 40 countries and by a binding international treaty of the Council of Europe. In all other areas of scientific advancements, regulations lengthen the time taken for the process or may even put them to a halt. Unduly restricting clinical trials and medical experimentation would slow down the development of drugs which could provide important cures to illnesses. This is particularly acute during the onset of viral epidemics which pose a threat to human life. Development of a cure for ebola fast tracked on an unprecedented scale. If hampered by undue regulations, slower progress, clinical trials take place over years instead of weeks or months, more deaths in the interim …. This stifling of creativity and innovation would thus would prevent mankind from benefiting from scientific and technological developments.

Although advancements in the fields of science and technology can bring benefits to society, it can cause more important ethical considerations to take a backseat. Regulations are justified as they serve as a moral compass to ensure the pursuit of scientific research is for the benefit of society. Scientists continue to push these ethical boundaries resulting in ethical dilemmas. The discovery of the genetic code and improvements in CRISPR technology have allowed for genetic mutations to be detected at an early stage and corrected. Parents may even go as far as to choose what kind of traits they want in the child and incorporate such genes into them. One can foresee the creation of a superior GM human race. This raises ethical questions as to how far humans should be allowed to modify nature and “play God”. Genetic engineering can be seen as unnatural and unnecessary since people believe that humans should just let God or natural evolution take charge. Humans do not have sufficient knowledge on what constitutes good traits for a human being and the human race. Regulations can be justified by preventing the ethical boundaries from being crossed. Regulations also serve as moral guide for scientists in their pursuit of new discoveries. Animal testing, most commonly but not limited to fruit flies and mice, is widely used in scientific research. They are studied to better help scientists understand the human biology and also to develop new medicine and technology. Antibiotics, vaccines, insulin, organ transplantation and HIV treatment have only been developed with the help of experiments involving animals. Animal rights activists argue that it is unethical for animals to be subjected to scientific testing because their quality of living is reduced. The Animal Welfare Act or Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) are some examples of regulations that review proposed animal experiments. Scientists need to provide justification for using animals, procedures or drugs to be used to eliminate or minimize pain and discomfort, and methods to ensure that the experiment does not unnecessarily duplicate previous research harming animals for their research to be approved. This ensures that they still keep the animals welfare in mind and not blindly pursue their research.

Regulations are also justified to protect society from the potential harmful creations of technology from scientific breakthroughs. Some scientific developments have been deemed unsafe and unethical, especially if put in the hands of the wrong people. Artificial intelligence is growing at an accelerated pace. Notable individuals, such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates, have expressed their concern in its growing potential for harm. One fear is that AI enables government to produce autonomous weapons that can choose their targets, killing innocent civilians. AI weapons would be harder to control than normal ones. AI can also be capable of social manipulation by spreading propaganda to individuals identified through algorithms and personal data. The case of Cambridge Analytica using the data from 50 million Facebook users to try to sway the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the U.K.’s Brexit referendum illustrates the power of AI. AI generated videos, Deepfakes, are also prevalent and have gone viral. If this technology is put in the wrong hands to manipulate and deceive, reputations can be easily destroyed and society’s fabric will be threatened. Currently, global bodies to protect humanity from the potential dangers of AI and machine learning are conspicuously absent but employees at technological companies circulate petitions on the ethics of their products. Regulations would slow down the development of AI and give time for necessary precautions to be taken that can protect society from its potential negative consequences. Other such technology and scientific research with potential harm to society have also been halted. For instance, in the United States, distribution of 3D printed gun blueprints have been banned. A research involving investigating the spread of H7N9 virus in a lab has also been halted for fear of lab accidents that could release the virus to the public or bio terrorists accessing such findings and creating mayhem. Federal regulations on drone usage also exists, such as these unmanned vehicles are prohibited from flying over federal facilities or near airports. They are ultimately to protect the public and can be justified.

Regulations also prevent the profit-driven firms from exploiting scientific and technological advancements at the expense of society’s welfare. In 2010, the World Health Organisation warned of the endemic problem of corruption in the business of pharmaceutical companies. Clinical trials may be conducted without proper regulatory approval. Drugs may be produced through substandard or counterfier methods, producing substandard or even harmful drugs. These corrupt practices were driven by monetary benefits and disregard the individual’s welfare. It leads to patient suffering and have severe life or death consequences. Stricter checking of the processes and products will bring benefits by preventing such occurences. Pharmaceutical firms also price their drugs at an exorbitant price, making them inaccessible for those who need them. Gilead Sciences, the American pharmaceutical giant behind the hepatitis C cure, Solvadi, boasted a 45 percent net profit giant, while four million people died of this curable disease. Monsanto, an agricultural company also extracted huge profits from farmers cultivating cash crops like Bt cotton. The seeds were genetically engineered for one time use and have compelled farmers to spend beyond their means and caused severe economic distress. This drove about 270000 farmers to suicide in the nineties. These new technologies thus do not benefit society because of its use for the ruthless pursuit of economic gain. Regulations on their distribution and pricing can ensure the advancements serve those in need.

In conclusion, a quote by Omar Bradley on scientific knowledge goes, “To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven, the same key opens the gates to hell.” Scientific knowledge and new technology give us greater ability to do things that we could only have dreamt of before. They can resolve global problems and improve the standard of living, but at the same time cause mass destruction or further fracturing of society. Different stakeholders such as scientists, businesses, government and the public will have different views on what course of action towards new-age technology is right. The ultimate decision should come from wanting the best for the society.

Leave a Comment