Vital chemistry report shirks ethics, economics

America's chemists have peered into the future and found it good. Given adequate money and tools for basic research, they are ready, in the words of an old advertising slogan, to produce ``better things for better living through chemistry.'' So confident are they, that the motto adopted for the National Research Council's survey of research opportunities proclaims: ``Chemistry is a central science that responds to societal needs.'' Certainly, this incisive study, led by George C. Pimentel of the University of California at Berkeley, is justified in promising more food, better medicines, cleaner environments, and nifty new materials. But its vision of how to meet society's needs is narrowed by two naive assumptions.

First, while paying lip service to the restraints of economically hard times, the National Research Council (NRC) committee somehow expects that a deficit-conscious government will let the National Science Foundation ``begin a three-year initiative to increase its support for chemistry by 25 percent per year.'' It expects other agencies such as the Departments of Defense and Energy to boost support for chemistry, too.

What is fundamentally more important, the report reflects a widely held assumption that, while chemists have a responsibility to deal with public issues, that responsibility is ``secondary'' -- to use the report's term -- to their responsibility to perform scientific research. Moreover, the increasingly vexing question of the individual moral and ethical responsibility of scientists was apparently not considered worthy of mention.

How can such matters of social responsibility be of secondary importance when Louis Fernandez, chairman of Monsanto and chairman of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, says, ``The big issue for the chemical industry is to gain public confidence -- that it is acting responsibly . . . and that it isn't putting dollars and profit ahead of everything else -- which is a common perception.'' Making this point in the Oct. 7 issue of the American Chemical Society (ACS) weekly magazin e Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN), Fernandez says that chemists need to face the challenge and ``say, `I'm going to lift this to an entirely new level of priority in my thinking.' ''

The report's insensitivity in this area is exemplified in its introduction. This proclaims, with justified enthusiasm, that ``there is no area of basic science that offers a more secure investment in the nation's future.'' Quite true. Noting that ``nothing preoccupies humans more than questions about the nature of life and how to preserve it,'' the report hails chemistry as contributing ``to human knowledge in areas of universal philosophical significance.'' This, also, is quite true, as is the report's

conclusion that ``we find ourselves in a time of special opportunity on all these fronts.''

Yet it seems ironic that, in the very same paragraph, the report finds progress on these fronts to be ``epitomized by the striking fact that the number of new compounds continues to increase at a rate that is faster than exponential.'' That fact has already struck fear into the thinking of many people who wonder what new chemical horrors are being released into the environment. To point this out is not merely to carp at an otherwise excellent study. This is a seminal document, carefully prepared under t he auspices of the National Academy of Sciences.

A symposium on ``Chemists and Ethics,'' held during the ACS Chicago meeting in September, was poorly attended. By contrast, the first of five regional symposiums to be held to promote the Pimentel report recently brought some of chemistry's elite to the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.

Here, the importance of dealing with the public was stressed. But it was presented in the perspective of ``educating'' the public to the chemists' point of view. The emphasis was on persuading both the public and Congress to pour money into chemical research. Such self-serving salesmanship is not what Fernandez and some other perceptive leaders of the profession have in mind when they urge chemists to join with environmentalists, politicians, and other interested laymen in working out ways to deal with such problems as acid rain or chemical waste dumps, or the moral issues of developing weapons. They are calling for a reasoning together in which chemists themselves have to change their viewpoints and give up such preconceptions as the presumed political and ethical neutrality of their basic researches.

``Opportunities in Chemistry'' is a detailed agenda for progress in living standards through chemistry. But this progress can best be made by dealing with the public as partners rather than as ignorant sponsors whose support is to be won through manipulative public relations. This means recognizing that dealing skillfully with moral, social, and political issues must be considered an indispensable part of a chemist's professional competence.

Here is an opportunity in chemistry which should have had high priority on the NRC list. Moreover, it is an opportunity the chemical industry can immediately exploit by encouraging universities to include ethical and political dimensions in chemistry education and by providing funding to develop the necessary curricula.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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