Who’s Responsible If a Scientist’s Work Is Used for Harm?
Are scientists morally responsible for the uses of their work? To some extent, yes. Scientists are responsible for both the uses that they intend with their work and for some of the uses they don't intend. This is because scientists bear the same moral responsibilities that we all bear, and we are all responsible for the ends we intend to help bring about and for some (but not all) of those we don't.
To not think about plausible unintended effects is to be negligent -- and to recognize, but do nothing about, such effects is to be reckless.
It should be obvious that the intended outcomes of our work are within our sphere of moral responsibility. If a scientist intends to help alleviate hunger (by, for example, breeding new drought-resistant crop strains), and they succeed in that goal, they are morally responsible for that success, and we would praise them accordingly. If a scientist intends to produce a new weapon of mass destruction (by, for example, developing a lethal strain of a virus), and they are unfortunately successful, they are morally responsible for that as well, and we would blame them accordingly. Intention matters a great deal, and we are most praised or blamed for what we intend to accomplish with our work.
But we are responsible for more than just the intended outcomes of our choices. We are also responsible for unintended but readily foreseeable uses of our work. This is in part because we are all responsible for thinking not just about what we intend, but also what else might follow from our chosen course of action. In cases where severe and egregious harms are plausible, we should act in ways that strive to prevent such outcomes. To not think about plausible unintended effects is to be negligent -- and to recognize, but do nothing about, such effects is to be reckless. To be negligent or reckless is to be morally irresponsible, and thus blameworthy. Each of us should think beyond what we intend to do, reflecting carefully on what our course of action could entail, and adjusting our choices accordingly.
It is this area, of unintended but readily foreseeable (and plausible) impacts, that often creates the most difficulty for scientists. Many scientists can become so focused on their work (which is often demanding) and so focused on achieving their intended goals, that they fail to stop and think about other possible implications.
Debates over "dual-use" research exemplify these concerns, where harmful potential uses of research might mean the work should not be pursued, or the full publication of results should be curtailed. When researchers perform gain-of-function research, pushing viruses to become more transmissible or more deadly, it is clear how dangerous such work could be in the wrong hands. In these cases, it is not enough to simply claim that such uses were not intended and that it is someone else's job to ensure that the materials remain secure. We know securing infectious materials can be error-prone (recall events at the CDC and the FDA).
In some areas of research, scientists are already worrying about the unintended possible downsides of their work.
Further, securing viral strains does nothing to secure the knowledge that could allow for reproducing the viral strain (particularly when the methodologies and/or genetic sequences are published after the fact, as was the case for H5N1 and horsepox). It is, in fact, the researcher's moral responsibility to be concerned not just about the biosafety controls in their own labs, but also which projects should be pursued (Will the gain in knowledge be worth the possible downsides?) and which results should be published (Will a result make it easier for a malicious actor to deploy a new bioweapon?).
We have not yet had (to my knowledge) a use of gain-of-function research to harm people. If that does happen, those who actually released the virus on the public will be most blameworthy–-intentions do matter. But the scientists who developed the knowledge deployed by the malicious actors may also be held blameworthy, especially if the malicious use was easy to foresee, even if it was not pleasant to think about.
In some areas of research, scientists are already worrying about the unintended possible downsides of their work. Scientists investigating gene drives have thought beyond the immediate desired benefits of their work (e.g. reducing invasive species populations) and considered the possible spread of gene drives to untargeted populations. Modeling the impacts of such possibilities has led some researchers to pull back from particular deployment possibilities. It is precisely such thinking through both the intended and unintended possible outcomes that is needed for responsible work.
The world has gotten too small, too vulnerable for scientists to act as though they are not responsible for the uses of their work, intended or not. They must seek to ensure that, as the recent AAAS Statement on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility demands, their work is done "in the interest of humanity." This requires thinking beyond one's intentions, potentially drawing on the expertise of others, sometimes from other disciplines, to help explore implications. The need for such thinking does not guarantee good outcomes, but it will ensure that we are doing the best we can, and that is what being morally responsible is all about.
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally, for example she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise your awareness about forms of stress like anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She carefully describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also discuss several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we talk about the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.