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The Social Responsibilities of Scientists and Engineers

Scientist working out in the field
Photo credit: Sirichai/Adobe Stock

Being a scientist is about pursuing knowledge. But is there also a responsibility upon scientists to communicate or apply that knowledge in a way that contributes positively to society? The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to confront this question head on.

Yet, too many discussions about the relationship between science and society lack an empirical understanding of what scientists and engineers themselves believe. To address this, AAAS teamed up with 18 scientific and engineering membership organizations to conduct a global survey of scientists and engineers, probing them about their views on their social responsibilities, what influences those views, and their ability to act according to those responsibilities.

“There were two reasons we decided to pursue this project when we did,” explained Jessica Wyndham, Director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program at AAAS and one of the co-authors of the study.

She pointed to the increasing debate around the role of scientists and engineers in society and a need to inform a United Nations process that was trying to define the “right to science.”

The language of the right, contained in a United Nations treaty, speaks of scientific freedom without specific reference to the responsibilities of scientists. To contribute to a comprehensive vision of the right we wanted to complement other work we were doing on the right to science with discussion of the social responsibilities of scientists and engineers as drawn from their perspectives,” Wyndham said.

While this global survey had a response rate of less than 4 percent, meaning that the findings cannnot be considered representative of the sample frame, it did reveal some interesting patterns worthy of further exploration, including suggested differences according to discipline, employment, sector, gender and age. The survey results provided AAAS with a starting point to conduct a qualitative assessment that involved both interviews and a focus group in the United States.

Taken together, these surveys, interviews, and focus group offer some insight into how scientists and engineers think about and act in relation to their social responsibilities. Notably, the study suggests that views on the importance of various social responsibilities do not always align with how scientists and engineers act. Mentors, as well as colleagues and peers, were reported by respondents and discussed among interviewees and in the focus group as having particular influence on the views of respondents as to their social responsibilities. In contrast, study participants suggested that codes of ethics have limited influence.

Social responsibilities related to the conduct of science, the management of research, and societal impact and engagement were recognized among study participants as being important. As one federal agency employee said during the focus group sessions, “I think it’s really conducting ourselves as researchers, as scientists, such that we deserve that [public] trust because I think everything flows from that.” They also suggested opportunities for more broadly and effectively institutionalizing approaches to social responsibility, including through professional societies that have a role in defining and creating the culture of a discipline. At the same time, those engaged in the U.S. qualitative study did recognize challenges and risks that require careful attention. In the end, however, as came out across the study, the need to keep the discussion about social responsibilities of scientists and engineers going is evident, it is in the interest of the scientific and engineering communities just as it is in the interest of society.

[Associated image: Sirichai/Adobe Stock]


Zaid Jilani

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