A Review of the Book Bioethics for Scientists

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Bioethics for Scientists (Edited by John Bryant, Linda Baggott Ia Velle, and John Searle; Baffins Lane Chinchester West Sussex, England: John Wiley and Sons, Ltd., 2002)

Bioethics for Scientists offers a wide compilation of bioethical issues presented expressly for a scientific audience. Society is increasingly asking how scientists should be educated about ethical aspects of science and technology. Current ethical training focuses primarily on the methodological aspects of scientific conduct, such as data management, conflicts of interest, and ownership of data. Bioethics for Scientists, by contrast, considers the deeper philosophical underpinnings of science and the public implementation of scientific findings.

The book’s introduction presents the reasons why scientists should be trained in bioethics. Science is not value-free, and the discoveries and applications of science and technology have far-reaching implications. These truths call for a thoughtful consideration of the interface between the disciplines of science and technology and the discipline of ethics.

Though written from a United Kingdom perspective, this book offers many valuable lessons for all scientists. The text is divided into four sections: Part I, “Setting the Stage,” introduces the fields of ethics and bioethics and examines how the fields of science and technology interact with and influence the general public; Part II, “Ethics and the Natural World,” inquires about the value of the non-human world; Part III, “Ethical Issues in Agriculture and Food Production,” presents a series of case studies on issues central to agriculture and the production of transgenic foods; and Part IV, “Ethical Issues in Biomedical Science,” addresses topics such as genetic enhancement, patenting, cloning, euthanasia, and reproductive technologies.

Much of the text is written from a secular vantage point; however, the influence of religious deliberations, particularly the Judeo-Christian tradition, is interspersed throughout the various topical discussions. Scientists are likely to find many of the concepts to be insightful and beneficial, although some of the language and terminology may be onerous for scientists with minimal exposure to philosophy.

Several topics are especially relevant to issues facing scientists in particular. For example, the two major frameworks for the interface between science/technology and the general public are discussed: 1) the traditional collegial or academic scientific community model and 2) a “market,” or “expert,” model. In the collegial model, the scientific community is regarded as authoritative with respect to certain knowledge, thereby earning society’s trust in matters of policy deliberation. The market model, by contrast, does not automatically attribute expertise to scientists; rather, scientists are thrust into the public square as “competitors” for societal acclaim, with the public determining whom to believe by examining the credentials and affiliations of individual scientists. The book suggests that the current trend towards the market model has encouraged a generalized distrust of all scientific expertise.

Also discussed are the belief systems that shape policies governing animal research. Such systems include anthropocentrism (human needs and benefits are in a different category of importance than that of non-humans), biocentrism (humans are merely one species among many), and theocentrism (humans and other species are of value because God created them).

What is timely about this book is that it addresses the increasing necessity for scientists to be educated about the ethical aspects of their work. Bioethics for Scientists begins this discussion; however, additional consideration of topics such as scientific professionalism, societal limits on and justification of scientific exploration, and allocation of research funding is needed in order to close the critical gaps in bioethical deliberation within the field of science. Further reflection from a Christian perspective on these topics and other issues addressed in the book would be particularly welcome.