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Eric P. Skalac/MEDILL

William Schweiker of the University of Chicago (left) moderated the discussion of ethics in science.

Chicago scientists, professors gather to discuss ethics in science

by Eric P. Skalac
Nov 11, 2010

At Frank Lloyd Wright’s austere Unity Temple, 70 scientists, researchers and faculty sat attentively in rows of pews as a professor of theological ethics authoritatively asked, “How do we act with the power that we have?” At the out-of-the-ordinary event, a panel composed of scientists, a surgeon and a professor answered.

“Society expects to see results from science,” Pam Sydelko said Wednesday evening at a panel discussion of ethics in science.

Sydelko, deputy associate laboratory director for energy engineering and systems analysis at Argonne National Laboratory, said that the general public does not understand the “pipeline” from basic science to applied science—the path from scientific research, that produces better understanding, to research that may lead to innovation and salable products. She said that in the past the funding process between basic and applied sciences “used to be so much more of a balance.”

The panel met at Oak Park’s Unity Temple, an austere Frank Lloyd Wright creation that contributed to the atmosphere of sober ethical discussion. The evening was the second in a series of joint speaker events hosted by the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and was open to scientists, researchers and university faculty.

University of Chicago theological ethics professor and moderator William Schweiker posed many questions to the panelists and the audience of 70, including whether, “funding [was] driving research, and if so, should it?” He spoke about the historical component of ethic. He cited Greek philosopher Socrates who said his job was to bring philosophy down to Earth, to think about human problems in some way.

Though the ethical issues involved in funding permeated the discussion, they were far from the only subject discussed.

Chris Quigg, a theoretical physicist from Fermilab, spoke about instances when institutions that he’s loved, “have been on the wrong path.” He said he called attention to their problems “visibly enough to incur the wrath of the establishment.” But when the authorities weren’t responsive, he said that he, “held back from bringing down the temple.” Though he didn’t give specifics, in many cases he feels that he should have done more, but he said that, “if I had done more, I would have done real harm--so there are things to agonize over.”

An Argonne computer scientist formerly employed by the oil industry asked Quigg, “How [he knew] when to hold back from bringing down the temple?”

“I’m not sure you do know,” Quigg responded, illustrating the complexity of such decisions. “It’s a real challenge to know how far to go.”

The panel went on to speak about organ transplant markets, the public aversion to nuclear research, and as the founder and director of the Chicago-based Zygon Center for Religion and Science, asked, “Are we creating the kind of world that we want to create?”