Ethics In Science

Pure science vs Applied Technology

Pure science is the research done to determine how things work. Things like e=mc2, double helix structure of DNA, Newtons laws of physics, calculus and even things like what the Large Hadron Collider will hopefully uncover.

Applied science involves taking those findings and using them to create technology.
In the case of e=mc2 it brought about the nuclear era, with both Nuclear Bombs and Nuclear Power.
If you take Newtons work on prisms and light, then that enabled a whole range of things, from cameras to being able to tell a suns composition due to the specific frequencies that it doesn’t emit (ok that last one isn’t directly a technology but more of an analytical tool).

There are two main models when it comes to research and ethics. The Linear model and the Social model.

Linear Model

This model dates back to Francis Bacon and is about the search for knowledge. It uses the line of Pure Science -> Applied Science and Technology -> Products.
It’s the more classical model and is highlighted by the thought that “science progresses best when scientists are given free reign in what to research”.
The main points are that HOW they research is still done in an ethical and caring manner, and that while the raw science shouldn’t be restricted, the technology can certainly be governed by social and ethical norms.

Social Model

The social model says that society should have a role in deciding what research is undertaken. It also doesn’t make the distinction between pure and applied science.
This model is common when talking about techno-science.

Example 1 : AI

Under a linear model research would be done in Artifical Intelligence. Datasets would be created, experiments done, and the results would be algorithms and white papers on neural networking, evolving systems, and ultimately the ability of programs to learn, adapt and change (usually with certain restrictions and limitations).
These could be used for good, such as more advanced search, computers that are more personalised and easier to use, to control vast traffic networks and reduce or eliminate congestion, or even the central Venus Project computer system Venux, allowing the replacement of government.
Alternatively they could be used by marketers to try more targeted advertising, increasing cyclical consumption and materialism. Alternatively they could be used by the military to help create autonomous robots, and other killing machines.

Under a social model the research and development would be moderated and restricted.

In the current system the military are more likely to push for AI research specifically dealing with flying aircraft and targetting detection. Whilst that research could be used to make aircraft autopilots more safer and better than actual humans, it can also be used to create UAV’s that will automatically bomb ‘enemy threats’.

Example 2 : Nuclear research

Under a Linear model researchers would be able to research Nuclear fusion and fission technology, to the point their research could be used for zero radiological waste Nuclear power plants, or even handheld cold fusion powerpacks.

Under a social model such research would likely require heavy debate amongst the public before being rejected because of it’s affiliations with nuclear weapons, and the potential military applications.

There are 3 main types of ethics when dealing with science :
1. Those relating to internal research (e.g harm to the humans and animals involved, or the intellectual property rights).
2. What research should be undertaken (especial under the social model), and with what priorities?
3. The scientific responsibility (this is harder if there is no distinction between pure and applied research).

For all the emphasis on the material benefits of science, we should not prevent recognition of it as an essential part of human culture, just like painting, literature, and music are“ – Sir Ian Wark

Tension points in Ethics include :

  • The scientists sphere of responsibility. E.g How responsible is Albert Einstein for the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
  • Risk – What are acceptable levels of risk? Who is at risk? Why are people willing to accept that risk? Do they have a choice? (E.g are they being coerced by monetary or health reasons)
  • IP rights and restrictions – This is especially an advantage for developing countries.
  • Industry funding of research – A company is much more likely to fund applied sciences which has obvious monetary reward, whilst government research is much more likely to fund fundamental pure science.
  • Criteria for selecting research projects – A lot of the selection process in regarding research projects is determined by which ones will be funded. Currently 90% of research funding is done in the 1st world, not 3rd world countries, which are the ones that actually need it.
  • Risk vs Benefit – In a number of cases the people at risk aren’t the ones who benefit, which can add extra strain to maintaining ethics.

One saying mentioned was that ‘I don’t care what you do, as long as you worry about it.

Zeitgeist Movement Specific

Personally I think that the best approach for the Zeitgeist Movement regarding ethics in science is a hybrid approach. Using mainly a linear model, but with priorities set by Venux.
Hopefully there would be very little restrictions on pure research (except maybe in the types of experiments, and possibly the amount of resources available for super large projects).

Thank you for reading. If you have any ideas, comments or concerns, feel free to post them into the comments, or email

NB : This essay was initially posted by Michael Kubler to the South Australian ZM mailing list on Sun, 22nd Nov – 2009

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