What kind of social contract is there – or should there be – between science and society? That was the issue Hastings Center scholar Gregory E. Kaebnick addressed in a National Academy of Sciences workshop on May 2. The public meeting was designed to discuss the recent controversy over and responses to publication of NIH-funded research demonstrating readily transmittable laboratory-produced variants of the highly lethal H5N1 influenza virus
Called “Issues Raised, Lessons Learned, and the Paths Forward for Dual-Use Research in the Life Science: The H5N1 Controversy,” the workshop addressed the various responses to the research and its potential publication issued by National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (the funder), the World Health Organization, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), science publishers, and international researchers. The workshop also provided a forum for a broader range of stakeholders, including policymakers, NGOs, and the general public.
Video from the complete program is available from the National Academy of Sciences
Understanding the contract between science and society is necessary for a broader forum, and this was the topic of the panel Kaebnick was on. He offered the provocative idea that there isn’t really a social contract between science and society, and maintaining that there is one allows complaisance with self-governance by scientists that may steer us in the wrong direction. Rather, he offered the idea that science has a “nested relationship” within society, and that the social obligations of scientists derive from the broader social obligations borne by all citizens, rather than from a special relationship between science and society.
Kaebnick also addressed what he called the “ambivalent relationship” of science to values, claiming that while many scientists and the public alike prefer to think of science as fact-based and thus value free, there are special values embedded in science. “I have concern about a system that relies too much on self-governance when looking at very large questions,” he concluded, and recommended expanding membership of NSABB and institutional biosecurity boards to a broader range of members.