Physicians, scientists, divinity scholars examine ethics in science at second joint speaker series event

Should scientists consider how their discoveries might be misused? Are scientists too controlled by their funders? What responsibility do scientists have toward the public?

Theologians, theoretical physicists and transplant physicians pondered such questions at the Nov. 10 “Ethics in Science,” the second in a series of joint speaker events that bring together faculty from the University of Chicago and scientists, researchers and engineers from Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

Meeting at the elegant Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Unity Temple in Oak Park, the panelists began by considering the story of the ring of Gyges, presented in a video that was created for the event. In the video, Daniel Sulmasy, MD, Kilbride-Clinton Professor of Medicine and the Divinity School and Associate Director, MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, introduces the story from Plato’s Republic about a magical ring that makes the wearer invisible and allows him to commit crimes with impunity. The point of the story is that a code of ethical conduct is needed before anyone, including scientists, can be trusted with the ring of Gyges.

“Sometimes there’s a difference between what we can do and what we should do,” said J. Michael Millis, Section Chief of Transplant Surgery, Medical Director of the Transplant Center, and Professor in Surgery at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “It’s important to set limits.”

Such limits are not always clear, understood or respected, panelists said, citing unethical syphilis studies at the Tuskegee Institute in the 1930s and today’s rules for organ transplantation that are clear but difficult for some patients to accept.

“Science is fundamentally an ethical enterprise and its purpose is to improve life,” said Philip Hefner, Professor of Systematic Theology Emeritus, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. “Beyond that, what should scientists be doing? Is it ethical to spend $12 billion a year on cosmetic surgery and untold millions putting TV shows on smart phones? Is that where research should be directed?”

Societal and cultural influences

One thing that is clear, panelists said, is that scientists can’t resist pursuing knowledge, whether for its own sake (basic research), its usefulness (applied science) or commercialization (technology transfer).

Pam Sydelko, Deputy Associate Laboratory Director for Energy Engineering & Systems Analysis at Argonne, believes basic science is being under-funded, which is diminishing the power of science to improve lives. “Society expects results but fails to realize that research involves a long pipeline,” she said. “If you cut basic research, the pipeline will not produce because applied breakthroughs don’t come from vapor.”

Another issue is that funders are playing a bigger role in directing science, all the while creating pressure for concrete results, said William Schweiker, moderator and Director of the Martin Marty Center, and the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics in the Divinity School.


Too much direction from funders stifles creativity, said Chris Quigg, a theoretical physicist at Fermilab. “Funders want more accountability, which could help researchers deliver what they promise,” he said. “It could also guarantee that researchers don’t deliver more than what they promise,” citing the "World Wide Web" as a discovery that grew out of work aimed at other results.

“Limits can also come from cultural mores and values,” Schweiker said. For example, scientists were reluctant to conduct genetic research in postwar Germany and they are reluctant to pursue nuclear energy today in this country.

“As physicians, we deal with irrational attitudes all the time, even in life and death,” Millis said. “Sometimes you just have to accept it, however irrational it is.”

Organized by the University’s Office of the Vice President for Research and for National Laboratories, the goal of the speaker series is to encourage interaction between scientists at the participating institutions and create more collaboration.

Jyotsana Lal, a physicist at Argonne, was glad she attended. “We don’t often have the luxury of discussing such issues, but we should keep them in mind. This kind of event helps do that.”