Science - June 4, 2020

‘Consider the ethical implications before you share your results’

Tessa Louwerens

PhD student Karine Kiragosyan is all for discovering and sharing new technologies. But when she saw the first glow-in-the-dark dogs produced with gene-editing techniques she was appalled. So her proposition is: Researchers should consider the social and ethical implications of their new developments.’

PhD students are expected to submit a handful of propositions with their thesis. In this feature, they explain their most provocative proposition. This time, it’s the turn of Karine Kiragosyan, who got her PhD on 8 April for her study on the removal of hydrogen sulphide gas from natural gas.

‘As a researcher, of course you are very excited when you develop something new. But we should be aware that people can abuse it and I think we have a responsibility in that respect. This became obvious to me after I had watched the Netflix series Unnatural Selection, in which a dog breeder uses gene-editing techniques to create glow-inthe- dark puppies.

Some techniques like CRISPR-Cas are quite straightforward, and you don’t need to be a scientist to be able to use them. That worries me because that could easily spin out of control. I do understand that it is difficult for researchers to prevent this, and I am all for developing new techniques. But I think it is important for your integrity as a researcher to at least consider the broader picture and probable applications before making knowledge public.

Researchers have a responsibility themselves

Sometimes it is good to hold back, at least until you have thought of a way to prevent abuse. Maybe a technique could be patented, for example, although that’s tricky too, since researchers work with many different parties and don’t have ownership of the techniques.

I work in the field of environmental technology, so this example of genetic modification is not relevant here. But we have similar dilemmas. One example is the development of wind turbines to generate green energy. We know they are far from green, as the turbines are made of plastics and the materials are not reusable. As a researcher, knowing this and still working on it as a “green” energy source has ethical implications too.’