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Posts Tagged ‘social responsibility

Science Policy Around the Web – July 31, 2018

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By: Patrice J. Persad, PhD


source: pixabay

Science and Society

The ethics of computer science: this researcher has a controversial proposal

As a computer scientist with good intentions, it is only natural for him/her to be optimistic about the societal implications of his/her discoveries or findings. Unfortunately, this naivety, or lack of foresight, regarding secondary uses and repercussions of computer applications in/on everyday life can be damaging. As illustrations of unpremeditated consequences, automated tasks based on machine learning algorithms may be time efficient but steal jobs from millions of workers. Also, seemingly unlimited data storage capabilities and potent graphical processing unit (GPU) processing permit building prediction models of consumers’ behavior. This unrestricted data access and use can infringe on individuals’ privacy and question the voluntary nature of the consent process.

In order to magnify the importance of all computer applications’—notably, artificial intelligence’s (AI’s)—shortcomings in relation to society, Dr. Brent Hecht of Northwestern University has a plan. Instead of lauding their findings’ positive influences on society, computer science researchers must disclose negative implications of their research in publications and other press-related media.

The Future of Computing Academy (FCA), which Hecht oversees and which is a branch of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), promotes this duty of negative impact disclosure during the peer review process. Motivation for such a proposal stems from fostering accountability of researchers to the general public; this emphasizes the computer scientist’s role not as a mindless mass producer but as a mindful protector of the public’s welfare. Acknowledging the cons of works/applications pushes discussing plus implementing solutions. This deepening of accountability also revitalizes the public’s trust in the computer science community. As expressed by Hecht, here is what fellow computer scientists, as authors and peer reviewers, can do right now to contribute to these efforts of recognizing negative societal impacts:

  1. As an author, include a section entitled “Broader Impacts” or “Societal Impacts,” which discloses negative impacts in addition to positive impacts. Readers are not expecting the authors to be seers; in the context of pre-existing literature, discussing secondary uses with possible dastardly effects on citizens should be a start (if not sufficient).
  2. As a peer reviewer, outright ask, if unlisted in the submission, “What are the work’s negative societal impacts?” Stress that disclosing such information will not warrant rejection of the manuscript. (On the other hand, if negative impacts outweigh positive ones, funding agencies can use their discretion in supporting projects.)
  3. When communicating with the press, remember to mention negative societal impacts, and be prepared to address relevant questions/comments.

(Elizabeth Gibney, Nature)


Did a study of Indonesian people who spend most of their days under water violate ethical rules?

At the heart of any study involving human subjects, the potential for an ethical dilemma to arise is strong in the face of unclear and/or inaccessible research policies and regulations. Or, to put it bluntly, there churns the following question that torments the researcher when ethical matters cross over into legal waters: “Will I go to jail if I unknowingly breach research protocol (no matter if that protocol is under debate or revision)?” The ethical dilemma is imminent especially when principal investigators are foreign and from developed countries, but the proposed study’s focus is on indigenous populations in developing nations. Consider the research presented in the April 2018 Cell article “Physiological and Genetic Adaptions to Diving in Sea Nomads” by Dr. Melissa A. Ilardo and colleagues. The investigation’s results demonstrated that genetic variation in PDE10A is associated with a larger spleen size in the Bajau people, Indonesian “Sea Nomads” who have practiced extreme breath-hold diving for over a thousand years. The Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education (RISTEK) in Indonesia granted the team a permit to pursue the study. However, the bona fide ethical conflict stems from:

  1. local organizations’ claims that the team did not receive approval from at least one Indonesian research ethics commission/committee (see Council for Internal Organizations of Medical Science, CIOMS, guidelines).
  2. failure to procure approval from the Indonesian National Institute of Health Research and Development to transport human DNA samples out of Indonesia.
  3. lack of research involvement on the part of Indonesian scientists, especially geneticists.
  4. inadequate presentation of overall research results to study populations, including the Bajau, before publication.

In defense of Ilardo and colleagues, supporters point out that the Indonesian government has not reprimanded any team members for their research indiscretions, and Cell finds no issues with the group’s provided documents from said government. As for engaging more with Indonesian scientists regarding local research projects, Ilardo’s unanswered e-mails to several local professionals prior to data and specimen collection are proof of involvement attempted. In hindsight (or perhaps coincidence), RISTEK in early July organized an online portal where foreign researchers can easily gain access to all protocol/documentation for permits.

Foreign researchers are urged to realize that these presented ethical concerns—among them, governmental/national organizations’ approval, or consent, and transfer of biological specimens out of developing countries—are not trivial. Scientists should not be alarmed at just the prospects of jail time. Research cooperation with other nations’ institutions/entities can impact international relations between nations and local denizens’ trust in foreign researchers. Both international relations and trust influence the success of future research endeavors in developing and other nations.

(Dyna Rochmyaningsih, Science)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 31, 2018 at 4:56 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – March 6, 2015

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By: Varun Sethi, MD, Ph.D

photo credit: El Bibliomata via photopin cc

Research Funding – Human Brain Project

Human Brain Project votes for leadership change

Europe’s ambitious 1 billion Euro project, the Human Brain Project (HBP), was launched in October 2013, and aimed to boost digital technologies such as supercomputing, working together with neuroscientists. Many high-ranking neuroscientists have voiced their discontent in the way that the HBP has been managed and its scientific progress therein. In response, the Board of Directors met on 26th February and voted narrowly to change the governance structure, disbanding the three person executive committee. This decision is expected to be supported by about 85 of the HBP’s partner universities and research institutes, later this week. The initial sparks of discontent were noted when the HBP had revealed plans to remove cognitive neuroscience from the initiative. 150 top neuroscientists had signed a protest letter alleging that committee was autocratically running the scientific plans off the course. The neuroscientists stated that they would boycott the HBP if their concerns were ignored. While the issue is being resolved, the responsibilities of the committee have been taken over by the Board of Directors. Recommendations from a mediation committee and a Commission interim report will be taken into account. With the Board of Directors in the driving seat, scientists believe that the HBP is getting itself in order. However the recommendations of the mediation committee, and their implementation, remain to be seen. The HBP’s announcement also confirmed reports that while the major funding body for the HBP is the European Commission and its research partners, the HBP has a larger vision to evolve into an international organization with a permanent infrastructure. (Alison Abbott, Nature News)

Scientific Societies – Social Responsibility

AAAS Questionnaire: Most Scientists feel duty to society but priorities vary

Most professional bodies agree that serving society is an important part of their mandate, however, there are differences regarding what exactly these social responsibilities are thought to be. To investigate, the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law program, together with AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, conducted a pilot study collecting responses to a questionnaire from 2153 scientists, engineers and health professionals across the world. The questionnaire presented examples of social responsibilities and asked participants to grade them, ranging from ‘critically important’ to ‘not at all important’.

Some of the highlights of the findings were that 80% of the respondents considered the proposed responsibilities as important, with some differences in response based on age, discipline and geographical locations; there were no differences by gender. While younger respondents were keen to explain their work to the public, senior respondents emphasized the need to report suspected misconduct. Respondents from health and social/behavioral sciences were most likely to select ‘critically important’, while engineers were least likely to consider a responsibility as important, very important or critically important. Respondents from Europe, North America and the Pacific concurred with an emphasis on considering the risks of potential adverse consequences associated with their work. Respondents from Africa, the Arab states, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean tended to respond in  ways similar to each other and prioritized the impact of each research project on social well-being.

This is a pilot study and reflects responses only from a small group of respondents, who were associated with AAAS in some way. A larger scale survey focusing on a broader international audience is the next step and will explore differences in the perception of what social responsibility is. (Kathy Wren, AAAS News)

Immune Defense

Does a high salt diet combat infections?

The adverse effects of too much salt in your diet are well known and have been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and in some cases even to autoimmune disorders. In a recent study, researchers are now finding that high levels of salt in the skin are helping mice fight infections. While immunologists are intrigued by the possibility that salt storage has evolved as a host defense mechanism, they remain skeptical. Experiments in mice have demonstrated that extremes of salt intake allow for additional accumulation of salt in the skin and this appears to boost the immune defense. Research using MRI techniques that measure sodium in the skin has found large accumulation of salt in bacterial skin infections even in humans who consumed a high salt diet. Scientists warn that these findings do not authorize a high salt diet to boost immunity. It is possible that prior to the era of antibiotics, and before the high prevalence of cardiovascular disease, a high salt intake might have benefited our ancestors. However, today, the detrimental effects of a high salt diet out weigh any potential immunological benefits. A more realistic application of these findings might suggest that local application of high salt wound gels or dressings on wounds. It makes you wonder if there is some truth in ‘rubbing salt on your wounds’ – perhaps fueling the immune system against the infection? (Kate Wheeling, Science News)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 6, 2015 at 9:00 am