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“I Don’t Want to Do Anything Bad.” Perspectives on Scientific Responsibility: Results from a Qualitative Interview Study with Senior Scientists

Abstract

This paper presents scientists’ understanding of their roles in society and corresponding responsibilities. It discusses the researchers’ perspective against the background of the contemporary literature on scientific responsibility in the social sciences and philosophy and proposes a heuristic that improves the understanding of the complexity of scientific responsibility. The study is based on qualitative interviews with senior scientists. The presented results show what researchers themselves see as their responsibilities, how they assume them, and what challenges they perceive with respect to their responsibilities. Regarding the latter, the interviewed researchers highlight those aspects of responsibility that go beyond the expertise of their professional role, and thus cannot be carried by scientists alone. For example, scientists alone cannot determine the general direction science takes, or the useful application of their research. The interviewed researchers describe those challenges as responsibilities that must be shared across different societal groups. In the theoretical literature, responsibility has been described as a relation between an actor (who), the action for which someone is responsible (what), and the normative framework against which someone is responsible (why). We will draw on this concept of “relational responsibility” to identify the various actors, normative frameworks, and actions relevant to scientific responsibility. This will serve as a heuristic tool to help identify the entanglement of responsibilities spread across several societal groups.

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Notes

  1. The edited volume from Vincent, van de Poel and van den Hoven [37] or the article by Fischer [23] provide good overviews of the responsibility discourse.

  2. During the study the interview guide was slightly adjusted according to prior experiences. Furthermore, all interviews have been conducted by the same person (S.W.), who adjusted the questions according to the flow of the interview.

  3. Due to an adjustment in the course of the study, four interviews were not analyzed, as they no longer fit the inclusion criteria. Three interviews were conducted with media experts who were intended to be a second group of interviewees. However, it did not prove to be feasible to compare scientists and media experts at the given point in time. The same holds true for the group of junior researchers, who were also considered as a contrasting group. Hence, one interview with a junior researcher was also excluded.

  4. For example, the recent genetic modification of two Chinese babies with the CRISPR/Cas9 technology [73], or the risk of releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment, can be understood as misuse.

  5. Other topics of science communication have been discussed intensively in the literature and provided a robust corpus of data regarding the science and society relationship [78, 79]. It is not the aim of this paper to discuss the science and society relationship in detail; however, the next section will discuss one central challenge regarding scientific responsibility: the decision-making process in society.

  6. Another approach to structuring aspects of scientific responsibility with the help of a relational responsibility regarding knowledge of synthetic biology was proposed by Deplazes Zemp and Leidel [90]. Another similar approach regarding the understanding of risk was proposed by Boholm and Corvellec [91].

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Acknowledgments

We thank our interview partners for participating in this research.

This publication is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation as part of the NCCR Molecular Systems Engineering.

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Correspondence to Sebastian Wäscher.

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Wäscher, S., Biller-Andorno, N. & Deplazes-Zemp, A. “I Don’t Want to Do Anything Bad.” Perspectives on Scientific Responsibility: Results from a Qualitative Interview Study with Senior Scientists. Nanoethics 14, 135–153 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11569-020-00365-5

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Keywords

  • Scientific responsibility
  • Science ethics
  • Qualitative research
  • Interview study
  • Science and technology
  • Relational responsibility