While these are the best of scientific times, they are also the worst, with tensions rising between science and society, Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in his keynote address today.
Some of these tensions come from problems within science, he said. A tiny number of incidents of scientific misconduct, accidental scientific errors, and the failure of medical researchers to declare they were funded by drug companies, can have a “terrible” effect on the public’s view of science. Concerns about treatment of human and animal subjects, as well as publishing by press release, add to the bad PR.
Other troubles arise when science collides with core values held by society.
Embryonic stem cell research (whose moral legitimacy depends on when you think life begins – not a scientific question), research into personal topics such as sex (which came near to being banned by the US Congress as a suitable topic for study by the National Institutes of Health), are two examples.
Another which, Leshner predicted, will at some point take the world by storm, is synthetic biology. He predicts a public crisis “when they figure out that we will be able to scientifically produce life”.
A further example is neuroscience and its potential to challenge ideas about the soul.
All inflammatory issues. But are they so very different from the time when scientists were challenging the core belief of Christians that God had put his favourite planet at the centre of the universe?
Joel D. Adriano, SciDev.Net contributor in the Philippines, and Aisling Irwin, News and features editor, SciDev.Net