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The fusion of ethics and tech

Will we be saved, or will we be doomed by technological developments? It all depends on the safeguards we build into the R&D process, says Dr. Ellen-Marie Forsberg.

Nic Mitchell Published: Updated:
Ellen-Marie Forsberg

Dr. Ellen-Marie Forsberg is one of Norway’s leading experts on responsible research and innovation (RRI). She works as Head of Research at the Work Research Institute (AFI), and leads the HiOA group on Responsible Research and Innovation. She is currently coordinating a major new Horizon 2020 research project on RRI – we will get back to that.

But first – the question of new technology as the world’s saviour? According to Forsberg, the problem is that scientists and innovators frequently fail to consider all the scientific and ethical uncertainties or general public concerns about new discoveries. This can lead to major controversies such as the European Union moratorium on approving genetically modified organisms, or GMO, which lasted from 1998 to 2004 and was opposed by the World Trade Organisation.

This is a typical example of ethical dilemmas, thrown up by science and technology at the frontiers of our knowledge, which fascinate Ellen-Marie Forsberg. She became involved with research ethics in science while studying philosophy at the University of Oslo. She went on to do a PhD looking at the methods for the ethical assessment of genetically modified foods. She joined the public National Committees for Research Ethics in 1999 focusing on policy and ethical issues related to the natural sciences and technology. In her first project she looked at fishery technology for the Fishermen’s Association in Norway, which represents a cross-section of fishermen.

From fish to H2020

Forsberg recalls: “The dilemma the industry faced was that it was getting so efficient with technology that it could fish the sea empty – as happened to the cod off the coast of Newfoundland in Canada. The cod simply disappeared and it was a tragedy for the local fishing communities. The question we faced, was: Should we develop these enormous industry ships where you can catch the whole quota within two weeks, do all the processing on board and then just deliver to the market? Or, do we want to keep the small fishing communities that we had along the coast, which are part of Norwegian culture but not so efficient?”

Forsberg investigated many other areas, in-cluding radiation protection, before joining the Work Research Institute in 2007 and transferred to HiOA in 2011. Last year she was promoted to full research professor. Forsberg says she likes the research environment within HiOA, which she describes as being “characterised by a lot of solidarity and collaboration”.

Now she is coordinating a major new 3.6 million Euro (nearly NOK 35 million) Horizon 2020 research project involving experts from China, India, the US, Brazil, Australia and six European countries. Each of the partner universities will be studying what happens in practice, both inside their own institution and also at their national research funding or policy institutional level in terms of ethical behaviour and responsible research.

New options, new dilemmas

Forsberg points out that RRI is a recent concept used mainly in biotechnology, nanotechnology and Information and Computer Technology, or ICT.

“These technologies give us options we have never had before that can affect the world and people at the same time. But we don't know what the long-term effects will be.”

A typical recent example of the kind of dilemma scientists may be facing, is the mosquito-borne Zika virus. It led to a general warning to women not to get pregnant if they planned to travel to Brazil for the Olympics because the virus can cause birth defects in babies.

Some scientists suggested using genetic modification to tackle the Zika virus, but Forsberg wasn’t so sure.

She says: “It may be possible to genetically modify mosquitoes that can breed with Zika carrying mosquitos so that their offspring die out. But what’s the responsible thing to do to combat these types of viruses? Should we put GM mosquitoes out into nature and keep our fingers crossed that it will be for the best? Or should these viruses and diseases be combated by fighting poverty or other structural means? If we choose to go for the technological solution, like GM mosquitoes, do we really know the consequences for eco-systems and other insects and birds?”

Addressing the controversies

According to Forsberg, RRI is about ‘keeping the discussion open’. In the RRI-practice project for the EU, she is working alongside philosophers, social scientists, psychologists and people with a back-ground in science and technology studies (STS). Despite her concerns with the ethical dilemmas facing advances in science, she is a fan of new technology.

“But I feel it is really important that we get technological development right. With the speed of technological development we are experiencing we have to keep abreast of the developments. That is what motivates me. For me, it is fascinating to understand that what we see in science fiction movies is actually not so far away.”

She says that whatever the industry or technology, the ethics and governance questions are very similar. “The key elements that always come up are about scientific uncertainties, lack of knowledge or disagreement about knowledge. Also that the technology development touches upon some controversial societal values that somehow need to be addressed.”

For more information contact Ellen-Marie Forsberg.