Change and Permanence: Reflections on the Ethical-Social Contract of Science in the Public Interest

In Vitro 17:1091-1099, 1981.


Modern science, dedicated since its 17th Century origins to the mastery and possession of nature for the relief of man’s estate, is a source of great social change, affecting our opinions, practices, and ways of life. It thus exists necessarily in tension with law and morality, our institutions of stability and order. This tension between change and permanence, between science and law or morals, was institutionalized by the American Founders who sought to encourage, under law, the progress in science and the useful arts, by means of the copyright and patent laws. American science and technology have flourished under the patent law, an ingenious ethical and social contract between scientists and the polity, through which private right and interest and public good generally coincide. Nevertheless, this contract has its limitations. Some of these limitations are vividly seen through the recent Supreme Court decision (in the Chakrabarty case) to permit the patenting of living microorganisms. Analysis of this case shows why the contract between science and the polity embodied in the Patent Laws may not always serve the public good and may also be harmful to science itself. Also, permitting ownership of living species shows how close we have come in our thinking to overstepping the sensible limits of the project for the mastery and possession of nature.

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