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Egenis · Research

Dual-use issues and changing scientific cultures: a comparative investigation

Louise Bezuidenhout

Start date

1999-12-01

Affiliated staff

Supervisors: Professor Brian Rappert (Sociology) and Dr Dana-Wilson-Kovacs (Egenis)

Contact

Tel: 01392 269142 Fax: 01392 264676 Email: lmb214@exeter.ac.ukBuilding: Byrne HouseRoom Number: FF10

Background

Science is currently in a state of transition, as many of the norms accepted as fundamental to science are becoming inadequate guidelines for good research practice. Despite the pressures that external and internal influences, such as funding priorities and publishing requirements, place on these norms, a considerable amount of discussion on science assumes that they remain intact and infallible.

In my research I propose to examine a number of these “norms under threat”, including the concepts of scientific responsibility, research freedom and openness. In particular I aim to examine how these norms are understood and interacted with in laboratories in both developing and developed countries – to examine whether the external pressures on the scientists (funding shortages, governmental inactivity, and peer pressures) affect how these norms are conceptualized.

These norms will be examined using the existing debate on dual-use as a means of focusing the research, and scientists limited to life scientists working in the field of HIV research. Dual-use, the concept that any scientific research could potentially be used for harm as well as benefit, provides a unique opportunity to view these norms at work as part of an existing debate, and to see how potential misapplication of these norms could lead to problems with implementing control and governance measures. I will focus on three aspects of dual-use control – the idea of the individual scientist as an ethically responsible agent, the concept of institutional/governmental regulation, and the idea of discipline/systemic international control.

Aims

The investigation of scientific norms will be focused on how life scientists interact with the norms causing areas of tension in the dual-use debate. The areas of investigation will include the concepts of agency in science, responsibility, and communalism. In order to further highlight how important a correct understanding of how scientists position themselves in their research in relation to these concepts, and how the dual-use debate has the potential to assume that all scientists are homogenous in their aims and pressures, a comparative study will be conducted between laboratories in two developing countries (South Africa and Kenya) and a developed country (UK). It is hoped that this comparison will show the importance of considering the extra-scientific environment in which the scientists work, and the pressures which societal, governmental and peer expectations exert on the scientists. As much of the research, and indeed discussion on the topic of dual-use focuses on scientific research in the developed world, it will therefore of importance to extend the discussion and investigation to include the scientists working in the developing world.

Specifically, this project aims to investigate and compare attitudes of scientists in relation to:

  1. Understanding of dual-use concepts and the norms associated with these concepts
  2. Level of engagement in dual-use issues on a daily basis and the involvement of norms in these interactions
  3. Limitations to dual-use engagement in specific setting
  4. Opinions on formulating a more robust dual-use debate

Methods

The initial phase of the project is a critical review analysis of the current literature surrounding dual-use issues and the role of the scientist. In particular there will be a focus on the responsibility of the scientist, and the possible methods of control of dual-use issues. By critically evaluating this literature it is hoped that certain issues can be identified which may have differing levels of importance for developing and developed world scientists.

Comparative data will initially be collected using a quantitative questionnaire distributed electronically. The questionnaire distribution will not be limited to the institutions in which seminars will be conducted, but will address all scientists belonging to professional organizations (such as the Association of Immunologists). It is hoped that the results of the questionnaire will provide areas of contrast between scientists in the UK and in the developing countries which can be utilized in the construction of the seminar style. Furthermore, the results from the questionnaire will provide a more statistically generalizable overview of the groups of scientists being researched.

Due to my previous work in science, as well as the many contacts of Dr Rappert, it is hoped that in each institution in which research will be conducted that there will be a personal acquaintance. This will facilitate the organization of the research, which must necessarily be partially organized from a distance. It is hoped that the responses from the questionnaires will assist in designing the qualitative section of the research.

For the qualitative section of the research it may be possible to use a combination of seminars/focus groups, interviews and embedded research. Depending on the response rate for the request for participation, seminars or focus groups will be conducted at the laboratories selected. It is hoped that, in South Africa at least, these seminars may be accredited with Career Development Points to make participation more attractive. In either format, participants will be given considerable opportunity to respond to the questions of the researcher. Previous fieldwork on engaging life scientists in dual-use issues has been conducted by Dr Rappert using a seminar format. The design and outcome of these seminars will influence the formulation of this qualitative research design.

Due to the hierarchical structure of science, and the pressures of any work environment, it is possible that participants may, for some reason, be uncomfortable expressing their opinions in front of their colleagues. It is therefore hoped that a period of “embedded research” may be organized for each laboratory, in which the researcher spends up to a week in the laboratory setting. It is hoped that this may not only facilitate observation, but provide opportunity for informal discussions and more formal interviews (if necessary).

It is hoped that the combination of quantitative and qualitative data will allow for a robust understanding of the manner in which scientists engage with the issues in question.