Science - March 10, 2005

‘Codes of conduct are very boring’

A code of conduct for scientific research is perhaps necessary, but according to the emeritus professor of Medical Genetics at Rotterdam, Professor Hans Galjaard, it is above all likely to be ‘very boring’. If I were to read all the rules I wouldn’t have any time left for research. At least then there would be no danger that I would do the wrong research.’

Galjaard was one of the concluding speakers in the debate on ethics held Wednesday morning prior to the celebration of the Wageningen Dies Natalis (foundation day). His speech added a lighter note to what had been a fairly serious debate. As he put it, ethics comes closest to a ‘gut feeling’ that can help you when you have to make choices.

His opponent in the debate, distinguished professor and FAO vice-president Louise Fresco (‘I’ve been hired to disagree with you’) saw a bigger role for ethics. ‘Ethics is always about dilemmas, about making choices and about who should make the decision. Basic science should be driven by science, but society should also have a say in the matter, and the line of research should never be dictated by interest groups.’

According to former World Bank top man Professor Ismail Serageldin, also distinguished professor in Wageningen and director of the Library of Alexandria, ethics in science can be reduced to a simple assumption. ‘A scientist is also a citizen and he doesn’t leave his citizenship behind at the door of his laboratory.’

Serageldin illustrated ethical dilemmas with a story in which someone is asked to give a flute to one of three children, but where only information about one of the children is known. ‘If you hear that one child is poor and the rest already have everything, you are likely to give the flute to the poor child. But if you hear that the second child is musical, you will probably choose that child. If, however, you hear that the third child made the flute himself, you will be inclined to give him the flute. It is about the trade-off between equality, utility and property. It gets really difficult when you have heard all three stories.’

The most outspoken contribution to the plenary discussion came from the students in the audience who want more training in ethics. ‘All teachers should include more ethics in their lectures,’ claimed student Babs Jaspers. ‘I get worried when scientists do not think about the consequences of what they are doing.’ / GvM