Science guided by ethics

– on the responsible use of scientific freedom and dealing with scientific risk

Transparency, the free exchange of information and the publication of research results are the prerequisites for successful basic research. However, there are also risks along the way: Whether the material sciences or nanotechnology, the results of which could be used to develop destructive weapons, or the researching of pathogens that could also be used for bio-weapons or terrorist attacks, or psychology, medicine and neurobiology, where findings could be applied in aggressive interrogation techniques and torture – it is sadly a fact that research results, which are in themselves neutral and useful, could potentially be misused for dangerous or even horrific purposes.

Particularly in basic research, where results can often be unforeseeable and cannot therefore be good or bad per se, scientists must pay special attention to the problem of “dual use”. They should not just be content to adhere to legal regulations, but rather they must take ethical principles into account.

Every researcher must use his or her knowledge, experience and skills to identify potential risks in their research activities that could pose a threat to humanity and the environment. They must then weigh up scientific freedom and the risks of the research in order to make a responsible personal decision on the boundaries of their work.

The new "Information and Rules on the Responsible Use of Scientific Freedom and dealing with Scientific Risk” resolved on March 13, 2010 by the Senate of the Max Plank Society provides a structured framework for proceeding here, beginning with practices in Germany. They supplement the existing “Rules of Good Scientific Practice” and provide guidelines that better equip individual scientists to resolve ethical questions in cases of doubt. This self-regulation is intended to prevent misuse in research activities and minimise risks. The primary objective is to carry out and communicate scientific research responsibly; if necessary, however, the renouncement of irresponsible research can be the last resort – even if there is no statutory prohibition opposing the research project in question.

With these new rules, the Max Planck Society deliberately draws on the lessons from the research efforts of its precursor organisation, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society which, above all during the period of National Socialism, ignored ethical boundaries. The legacy of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society constitutes a great source of motivation for the Max Planck Society to identify possible misuse of scientific findings early on and tackle it as effectively as possible.