There's been a general sigh of relief as President Obama has rolled out his science adviser and indicated that the much-maligned world of science will have a new and bright future in the new presidency. The Bush years of science bashing, global warming denying, and stem-cell research stifling are over.
While we should be happy to see a revivified science, we should also be cautious. Science isn't an abstract commodity you buy to enhance your life. It is a way of thinking and doing that has its advantages but certainly presents us with problems.
As we call on science to explain, elaborate, and justify issues in civil and personal life, we need to be careful that we don't abnegate our responsibility to monitor the effects of this intervention.
DNA testing will begin to open up each person's personal genome, and will present us with choices we might not previously have made. Some people will fact the unpleasant prospect of proactive amputation or surgery to ward off diseases that they may possibly develop later in life. The courts will have to wrestle with new defenses that are based on genetic predispositions -- should a criminal get leniency because he was born with a genetic predisposition to violence or child sexual abuse? How will we define race in the age of genomics? Will our categories of mental disorders have to change to match new discoveries in brain imaging and neuro-genetics?
In the area of race, DNA testing will be able to identify the geographical and ethnic origins of individuals. In that case, will the old biological notion that race is bred into the blood and bone be revived? How will we define or redefine race?
In all these cases, there will be a strong bio-ethical and cultural aspect to the way that scientific discoveries roll out. It isn't enough for us to simply trust science and let it do its thing. We have to insist that science isn't autonomous but really linked to culture, history, politics, and ethics.
Scientists will, as they always have, insist that what the do is value-free and fact-based, but we have to make clear, without necessarily restricting science, that citizens have a right and a duty to help science think about the application of its discoveries to the complex web that makes up human life. The Right got this wrong in its insistence on creationism and the banning of stem-cell research, but the Left shouldn't over correct by insisting that science be free to do anything it likes without the input of informed citizens.
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