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Ethical relationships between science and society: Understanding the social responsibility of scientists

The wider social responsibility of scientists has received theoretical discussion but little previous empirical research. To elucidate the construct, this thesis investigated scientists’ attitudes, values and beliefs about social responsibility, with a focus on Promethean gene technologies. The thesis articulates a framework for the construct domain and develops and validates a set of new measures related to scientific social responsibility. Five technology fuelled, social and ecological, existential threats to Earth are identified, establishing the need for an increased ethic of social responsibility for the scientific endeavour and scientists in an age of Promethean technologies. The power of developing gene technologies and their social and moral implications are examined, followed by a discussion of relevant normative, meta-ethical and applied ethics theories. Next, Kohlberg’s (1969) cognitive moral development theory, Rest’s (1979) theory of moral behaviour, and Schwartz’s (1992) theory of personal value orientation are discussed as a psychological context for scientific social responsibility. The few empirical studies addressing the issue are reviewed. Original empirical contributions are presented in two studies. Study 1 is an explorative, qualitative research project using face-to-face, in-depth, unstructured interviews to investigate a purposive sample of scientists’ (N = 22) beliefs about the social role of science, and scientists, in research and technology development. The participants all worked in the field of genetic engineering, or studied its social or ecological impacts. From a data-driven, manifest, thematic analysis, three themes emerged, each with several sub-themes: doing public good (sub-themes: benefit/harm, knowledge, technologies, and foresight); engagement (sub-themes: informing society, becoming informed, and integrity) and; compliance (sub-themes: scientific norms, business norms, laws and regulations, societal mores, and personal values). A theoretically-driven, latent, thematic analysis, examined the normative and meta-ethical reasoning underlying participants’ manifest positions. Evidence was found for normative ethical reasoning (i.e., deontological, teleological and virtue ethics) and a range of meta-ethical approaches (i.e., ethical relativism, conventionalism, objectivism, moral absolutism, subjectivism, emotivism, and cultural relativism). From Study 1 items were proposed for two measures of social responsibility based on the first two stages of Rest’s model of moral behaviour. Study 2, a quantitative survey of scientists from six New Zealand Crown Research Institutes (N = 733, 40.9% female), used a nomological network of 39 hypothesised directional relationships (correlations) to help infer construct validity to five new instruments related to social responsibility: moral awareness, moral judgement regarding personal behaviour, technological optimism, attitude to the commercialisation of science, and attitude to the democratisation of science. Five existing instruments also comprised the nomological network: the four Schwartz higher-order value dimensions and a concurrent criterion, general attitude to genetic engineering. Exploratory factor analysis was used to select items for single factor instruments and confirmatory factor analysis to purify the instruments’ dimensionality, followed by reliability analyses. Four new instruments demonstrated good psychometric properties. Twenty-seven of 39 hypothesised correlations were significant in the right direction (at the Bonferroni adjusted p < .001 level), providing initial support for the new instruments’ construct validities and study results regarding participants’ attitudes, beliefs and values towards conducting socially responsible Promethean science.
Type of thesis
Small, B. H. (2011). Ethical relationships between science and society: Understanding the social responsibility of scientists (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/5397
University of Waikato
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