A Question of Ethics

Fritz Haber was a monster. Yet he’s, arguably, one of the most successful chemists of all time. In 1918 he was given one of the highest accolades that a chemist can receive; The Nobel Prize. Jump forward in time and we see how significant his work is even today, as high school pupils routinely learn about the Haber process (pictured below). In fact a third of the world’s population owes their lives to the products in fertilisers, which are made from this very reaction. I myself use ammonia and nitric acid frequently – something that wouldn’t be possible without this particular monster’s chemistry. Any scientist today would give their left arm to have such a legacy. However, I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who admires the man and this brings me to my point. Knowing that science is often used for questionable purposes, are we as scientists responsible for the unforeseen outcomes of our work? Just because it could be used for sinister purposes, should we supress the knowledge gained from original yet perhaps risky research?


The Haber Process…pretty, ain’t it?

These are questions that are still unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) even today. Genetically modified foods (and their potential risks) are ubiquitous in the news. Large agrochemical companies produce ever more sophisticated pesticides that may actually drive the evolution of resistance in pests much in the way that antibiotics have driven resistance in bacteria (even though they are trying to fight famine). Petrochemical companies, whilst striving to meet the world’s insatiable oil demands are, at least in part, contributors to global warming. This question of ethics has dogged me for years. After a heated “debate” with a friend I thought I had clearly shown that science is solely knowledge and the problem rests with the people who abuse that knowledge, not the scientist who slaved away to uncover its mystery. Of course the original motive behind this argument was for me to justify my place in the world and redeem myself as a proud scientist. But the more I think about Fritz Haber the more I start to question that stubborn stance. In fact chemists looking to answer this question themselves probably need look no further than the aforementioned monster.

Haber was described as having “…lived for science, both for its own sake and also for the influence it has in moulding human life and human culture…” 1 He was a man who undertook his science for the greater good. A most honourable prospect in anyone’s eyes and, eerily, something I aspire to emulate. However Haber is also the very man who abused his knowledge of science to initiate the gassings of World War I. The Haber process was used to make key components in the explosives used in that horrendous war. He also led the team that developed the precursor to Zyklon B, the gas which the Nazi’s used in concentration camps.

So what are we to learn from the life of Haber? Are we really responsible for every repercussion of our work and if so, do we censor our discoveries? I’m coming around to the idea of fuller ownership of my work but I’m still not convinced that I’m responsible for every repercussion. I’m certainly not responsible in the way that Haber was. After all he was the one who corrupted his own science and I certainly don’t plan on doing that. I am however starting to realise that chemistry – and science as a whole – is corruptible and I should be more aware of the seemingly hidden repercussions of my work. Maybe I should devote some time to limiting the damage it may do. I’m an aspiring medicinal chemist, maybe my compounds could have unintended side-effects and perhaps I am responsible for those. As this unending argument rages on in my head I’m left with another question. At a time where open access journals are becoming ever more popular and the scientific community at large fights against all forms of censorship, how could I even begin to go about limiting the negative outcomes of my own work? I for one hate the idea that scientific discoveries could be locked away by a government agency under the guise of “the greater good” only to be dished out to people it deems appropriate. In this open access age, how could I even begin to stop my (at present hypothetical) scientific discoveries from being hijacked by others with ill-intentions? Sadly I don’t have the answer to all these questions, and I definitely don’t think they’re going to be easy to come up with. What I can be sure of though is that at least I’m not going to betray my science and go the way of Fritz Haber.

  1. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1918/haber-bio.html
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