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Science ethics

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The ethics of science is concerned with the ethical aspects of scientific research. This relates both to ethical standards within the sciences and to the social impact of the research process.

The research ethics deals with the ethical principles of research and the tension between research interests and the observance of universal norms and values. The focus of interest is on questions of the responsibility and accountability of research and its possible effects on individuals and society.

Examples of socially relevant problem areas of research ethics are the areas of animal experiments or human experiments with test persons, stem cell research, genetic engineering, research for armaments purposes, the consumption of resources by research and data protection .


Scientific ethics seeks answers to the questions: What is ethically permitted within the framework of what is scientifically possible? Which things should be left unexplored? To what extent is a scientist responsible for the application of the work results?

In addition to legal regulations on scientific misconduct , two instruments should be mentioned with which the principles of scientific ethics are implemented in practice:

  • Subject-specific ethics codes
  • Ethics committees and commissions against scientific misconduct

Both instruments rely on the internal scientific correction of undesirable developments, since state demarcations are problematic due to the freedom of research.

Ethics committees are particularly common in the field of medical and bioethical issues. Subject-specific ethics codes and job-related ethics codes that set up ethical rules for individual professional groups cannot be clearly separated from one another.


During the late 1930s, for example, it became foreseeable that the enormous energies of nuclear fission could also be used for weapons . Robert Oppenheimer’s role in the development and initial use of nuclear weapons in the Manhattan Project shows the conflict of interest between feasibility thinking, personal ideals and the interests of government. Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard turned to Franklin D. Roosevelt before the start of World War II. The two physicists urged the American president to advance research on the atomic bomb in order to forestall the scientists of Nazi Germany. After the war and under the influence of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki , Einstein became a staunch opponent of the use of nuclear weapons. Contrary to popular belief, Einstein made no scientific contribution to the development of nuclear weapons. Criticism of science was later directed against the creation of weapons that could literally destroy all human life on earth at the push of a button. On the other hand, there were always voices from science who warned of the dangers of the nuclear arms race, such as the Göttingen Eighteen or Andrei Sakharov .

Genetic research has been at the center of ethical discussions since the 1990s. When using embryos for stem cell research, it is important to consider which forms of human life are to be protected from external interference (see also the debates on abortion and euthanasia ). An even more far-reaching ethical dilemma arises with therapeutic or cloning intervention in the human germ line. Science provides methods that change human life itself. Proponents of eugenics get suitable tools. Here the criticism is directed against the lack of interest of many scientists in asking ethical questions and taking responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of their actions.

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