Published:15 Feb 2021
There were some striking moments during my time as a chemistry student that, I assume, influenced my further career significantly. Here is one: we had a weekly “Kolloquium”, every Thursday afternoon, in which invited researchers and university scholars presented their research. Once, an expert on explosives introduced his progress on making extremely powerful nitrogen-rich compounds that could be used for mining, space rockets, and missiles. He measured the efficiency of his explosives by a killing rate within a certain radius. This was reason enough for some of our professors not to join this presentation. That was the first time that I seriously asked myself: “Is there any kind of research that would be wrong and beyond what is permissible as academic freedom? Aren't we scientists and researchers always on the good side with our noble curiosity-driven mission of knowledge generation and human enlightenment?”
A second eye-opener was a conversation with my grandmother. I was brave enough to go for the destined-to-fail challenge of explaining my research topic to her: microcontact printing, a soft-lithographic method with an elastomeric rubber stamp to facilitate the formation of self-assembled monolayers in confined areas under the exploitation of a chemical reaction in which the ‘ink’ molecules form covalent bonds with complementary molecules on a substrate surface. My principle investigator (PI), Prof. Bart Jan Ravoo, was hired by the Organic Chemistry Institute of the WWU Münster in a newly created chair on nanoscience, a research field that received a lot of funding in the early 2000s. My grandmother, a science layman, didn't understand a word of what I was talking about, but she surprised me with her question of whether “nano” also has something to do with “atoms” and whether that is also “dangerous and radioactive” like the rest of “that chemistry stuff”. Clearly, she didn't share my enthusiasm about the new insights and arising possibilities from our scientific research. Was that my mistake? Did I talk about it in the wrong way? Would it even be important to make laymen like my grandmother understand what all the millions of Euros of tax money spent for academic research are good for, or could we just ignore their concerns and irrational fears?
To give a third example of a kind of reflection that is related to my chemical research activities, but in no way ever taught in chemical education, I'd like to address the very pragmatic considerations that play a role when writing a thesis and that outweigh the abovementioned noble and curiosity-driven virtues of science. I wanted the results of three and half years of experimenting and collecting data to make sense! I wanted graphs and schemes to look good. And I wanted them to have enough explanatory power to convince my supervisors that I did good work and deserved a good grade. But, for some mysterious reason, most of my data sets resulted in graphs with ugly outliers, unexplainable kinks in what should be a simple curve, and deviations beyond what would be easy to overlook or smoothen by just choosing the right scale in the diagram. How bendable is the presentation and interpretation of scientific data? Is science still what we wish science to be – a quest for a universal truth that does not depend on the opinion or predisposition of the inquirer – when all scientific knowledge and its construction is so much an issue of how the scientist refines and explains her observations and records? When can an outlier be omitted? Am I cheating when I declare a series of measurements to have failed, repeat it the next day, obtain data that fits my expectations better, and communicate only that latter but not the former data set?
The higher education landscape is changing. More and more students in science majors across all disciplines have a chance to enjoy courses on scientific integrity, good research practice, or even the social and environmental impact of their envisioned professional occupations. I use the word ‘enjoy’, here, because I am sure I would have enjoyed that very different type of learning challenge. As my department didn't offer it, I reached out for other options. The philosophy department had a study group on science theory to which science students were invited. After two sessions I realised that this wasn't helpful at all: the philosophy students read W.V.O. Quine and discussed in which way the truth of a sentence like “Brutus killed Caesar” depends on the meaning of the word “kill”. What does language and linguistic convention have to do with science? For me, the naïve naturalist, language is just a tool that constitutes limitations that we aim at overcoming by understanding the true nature of things, somehow in the same way in which Neo in the Matrix movie trilogy stops seeing the computer-generated world (of which language is a part) but sees the matrix (the code) instead. Meanwhile, after much more self-studying, I changed my attitude, but at that time I thought that the philosophy of science didn't have much to offer that would solve my real-world problems of performing scientific research.
I found another appealing offer from Münster University, a Masters course (as an ‘additional qualification’) in Applied Ethics. This was very different from chemistry and scientific research. Here, I learned reading and writing anew. Far from moral philosophy, practical ethics aims to solve real-world ethical conflicts in medical, environmental, political, social, technological, or professional contexts. Finally, I found fruitful and rationally backed up ways to think about and communicate arguments in favour or against certain decisions and practices. There are good reasons for limiting academic freedom! There are discourse strategies that support whistleblowing of observed wrong-doing without risking one's job or grade! There are established procedures that empower scientists and researchers to contribute their specific competences to making scientific and technological progress sustainable (and, of course, reflections that clarify what sustainable even means)! And many more.
With this combination (nanoscience and applied ethics) I got a job in the field of technology assessment (TA). TA is a discipline that tries to accompany technological development with reflections on ethical and social implications of progress, so that it is possible to guide it into “the right direction”. The particular project I was involved in was the application of nanoparticles for medical diagnostics, a part of nanomedicine. This work was highly interdisciplinary, involving university scholars (nanoparticle research, biomedical science), hospital doctors, chemical companies, regulators, and patient organisations. With my chemical background, I was able to understand what the scientific researchers were talking about and why they say the things they say. Yet, I also realized that the scientific facts fail to answer questions of how we want to live or what a technological advancement might be good for. This experience reinforced my impression that many scientists and researchers lack certain discourse skills when it comes to figuring out, in an interdisciplinary manner, what our options are concerning guiding progress into a desirable and sustainable direction.
We wrote a report to the European Commission that was in charge of making new regulations about new drugs and medical treatment methods. That means, we had a client who expected us to write certain things in the report (for example, that nanomedicine is good after all, and that everything is taken care of and there is nothing to worry about). Science and technology ethics as a tool for generating public acceptance? This was not my idea! I decided to quit that job in order to pursue an academic career. After a postdoctoral research project on the social and ethical implications of Taiwan's nanotechnology initiative, I started teaching courses on science and technology ethics at universities in Taiwan. Besides many cultural differences and specificities that play important roles in discussing science and technology, I noticed that the practical and pragmatic questions that young scientists (by this I mean: students in science majors) ask are more or less the same around the world and across cultures: How can I do science well, and how can I use my competence and expertise to work as a responsible and positively impacting member of the local and global society? The answers are not always trivial. Certainly, they are also not random, a matter of opinion or taste, or necessarily tacit or incommensurable with the empiric character of scientific thinking. This is what this book aims to show.
I explain all this because I want the reader to know me at least to such an extent that it becomes clear why I may be justified in writing this book. I am a chemist by training. Additionally, I learned how to solve normative-ethical problems. Moreover, I worked in the wider context of socio-techno-scientific systems assessment of which chemists are a crucial and vital part. I hope that my experiences can serve as an insightful source for your learning and your own quest to find answers.
This book is only possible because I had the support from many colleagues and friends! It is the result of the tireless efforts of the working party Ethics in Chemistry of the European Chemical Society (EuChemS) that, since its constitution, regards the education of chemistry students in questions of ethical and social dimensions of chemistry as one of its core missions. In particular, I'd like to thank Hartmut Frank and Luigi Campanella for their support and input! Frank Moser highlighted many of the aspects presented in this book during a lecture tour through Switzerland in autumn 2017 (made possible by the SCNat, represented by Christophe Copéret and Leo Merz). Wide parts of this book are the result of conceptualizing and compiling an online course ‘Good Chemistry’ for the EuChemS. This project was gratefully supported by the EuChemS executive board, most notably Pilar Goya, David Cole–Hamilton, and Nineta Hrastelj. The team that created the content of the course consists of Iwona Maciejowska and Rachel Mamlok-Naaman of the EuChemS Division of Chemical Education, and Walter Zeller, Bill Byers and Paola Ambrogi of the European Chemistry Thematic Network (ECTN). Without all their input and discussions, this book would be different and, believe me, much more boring and drier. Helen Armes, Connor Sheppard and Lewis Pearce of RSC Publishing are thanked for their patience and great support during the creation and editing of the manuscript! This is my first book project, and if publishing is really always as smooth as with the RSC in this case, I will be motivated to do it again! Last but not least, I thank all the students in Taiwan and Europe that contributed with their critical questions and their positive and negative feedback to the constant revision and, hopefully, increasing quality of my idea of what good chemistry is.
Taichung, Taiwan February 2020