Preparatory Interpretations :
What does it mean by ‘drawing the line’ ?
Setting guidelines or a code of conduct with regards to the kinds of research and methodologies that are acceptable as well as the applications of the findings or the products of the research.
Who is ‘nobody’ ?
The public ? The governments or world bodies ? Scientists ? Corporations ?
• Modern scientific research has engendered unprecedented possibilities for mankind.
• It comes as no surprise that the interest in pushing the limits of scientific research grows with every new development.
• One question that arises is this : Where do we draw the line ?
• Some may say that we are clueless as to how limits should be set, especially when the discovery is new.
• As an extension to this, some might even suppose that no one actually cares about these limits if the research could yield benefits for various interested parties.
• This essay, however, seeks to argue that the claim that nobody knows or even cares where to draw the line in scientific research is unfair.
• This is because it is both possible and worthwhile for guidelines to be formulated for an even greater good, although the temptation of throwing all caution to the wind is ever-present.
Pt 1 : When the development is too new, it could be true to suggest that no one actually knows what the boundaries are. However, it is not fair to say that no one cares.
The reason why it is unfair to say that nobody cares about boundaries is because any research does not emerge in a vacuum. It emerges in the context of a society that already has established values and practices. So there will definitely be a segment of the population who show concern about how anything new (like discoveries and inventions) could affect the status quo and stability of the country.
Case : Organ transplantation
The first successful cornea transplant was performed in 1905 while the first successful kidney transplant was carried out in 1950. As with any effective procedure, the research behind it took years. Scientists remained steadfast in experimenting because they were driven by the mission to save lives and cure illnesses. There was then little consideration about the repercussions of a widely successful procedure. No one seemed to know any better about what was to come. Today, the lack of regulation in the field has created a black market for kidneys and corneas from the developing world to affluent patients from richer nations – one that is fraught with abuse since the sellers are desperate enough to subject themselves to sub-standard treatment. That said, despite the lack of foresight, there is a realisation that such unethical outcomes of research have to be curbed. This realisation stems from society’s own understanding that it is wrong to exploit the needy by forcing them to commodify themselves, including their organs. Different countries have implemented different measures. In Singapore’s first such case, the beneficiary was jailed and fined for making false declarations in order to procure a kidney. Human Rights Watch has also reported China’s use of organs of executed inmates to highlight that the absence of consent is against universal standards. When action is taken to prevent research from being misused, it shows that they care that boundaries are drawn even though they may not have known this any earlier.
Other possible cases : xenotransplantation, genetic modification
Pt 2 : There is awareness but nobody cares because they are interested in the results of unrestrained research.
Governments could be aware how to regulate the development of weapons technology but they have vested interest in strengthening their defence capabilities at any cost, and so they care little for regulation.
Case : Weapons development
A line could be drawn as to what kinds of technologies would be more acceptable. On the surface, developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones that shoot with accuracy and limit damage sound more humane than doing research on indiscriminate biological weapons like anthrax and botulism or chemical weapons like sarin gas or mustard gas. But in reality, governments have no incentive to apply such priorities because they know their enemies probably do not either. In the arms race, science and technology provides an undeniable edge. So governments make investments in all areas.
In the same vein, there could be guidance on how to draw the line in product development, but corporations or business-minded practitioners might choose to ignore it if it affects their bottomline.
Case : The commercialisation of alternative treatments
Certain kinds of treatments may not get the endorsement of the medical authorities that set the guidelines because the safety and efficacy of these treatments are not yet fully confirmed. Yet, businesses still roll these treatments out to make money from consumers who are eager for quick, painless procedures.
In S’pore in 2010, a doctor was fined for using a bioresonance machine that uses electromagnetic waves to treat patients with behavioural issues, but he did so without first ensuring that clinical trials were conducted according to the Singapore Medical Council’s guidelines.
(Or another e.g. In New Zealand in 2013, a doctor was fined $8000 for using an unapproved drug in a cheek lift procedure that was so botched up, the patient was left with large growths on her face)
Pt 3 : Yes, there are those who know how to draw the line and care, especially when the research has already become more established and scientists are aware of the problems that require regulation.
Case : Nuclear technology
(a) The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) works for the safe, secure and peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology. Its key roles contribute to international peace and security, and to the world’s Millennium Goals for social, economic and environmental development.
Areas of use : agriculture, water resources, human health, the environment
(b) Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons – most countries commit to not-producing such weapons, or disarming themselves, or applying only for peaceful uses.