Do We Regulate Science?
There's a strong impulse to attempt to control the direction of scientific research because in recent years there has been a steadily intensifying notion that science can and perhaps will present humanity with overwhelming danger.
Who can feel at ease as scientists learn more and more about nerve gases, sophisticated space weapons, and genetic engineering? Who can be satisfied with the pile-up of radioactive wastes, the prospects of ever more deadly war, the possibilities of modifying human structure and behavior?
Why should we not establish a review board to consider the routes along which scientific research is progressing—to slow them here, hasten them there, turn them this way or that in another place, and, on occasion, to stop a particular line of research cold?
But it's not so easy. The curious human mind makes strange leaps and a discovery aborted here is then duplicated there. In 1847, an Italian chemist, Ascanio Sobrero, discovered nitroglycerine and (inevitably) also discovered its explosive quality.Horrified at the destructive uses to which he foresaw it might be put, he stopped all research in that direction.
It didn't help. Others made the same discovery, and those others did not stop.
For that matter, should it have been stopped? Certainly advances in the knowledge of explosives produced new and deadlier weapons by the end of the century. On the other hand, Alfred Nobel tamed nitroglycerine and produced dynamite, and there's no need to go into all the constructive uses of high explosives.
We must, in other words, make a distinction between knowledge itself and the uses to which knowledge is put.