Do grant applications stop us from becoming evil scientists?

I am a huge Joss Whedon fan. Pretty much anything he has written, I love. I even enjoyed Cabin in the Woods and I hate horror movies (especially those with zombies in them). Nowadays Joss Whedon’s work is pretty well known, and not just Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Avengers, but some of his lesser known shows like Much Ado About Nothing and Dr Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog. One show that not many people know about though is Dollhouse, a TV show based on the idea that you can have your mind wiped of it’s personality and then imprinted with another personality of the client’s choosing. It raises interesting questions of personal choice and the nature of identity, but it also has some brilliant characters and one of them, Topher Brink, recently got me thinking. Topher is the resident ‘science guy’ and he is a genius, however he is seriously shaky in the morals department. During the course of the show, he makes a series of increasingly bad decisions, but none of them seem to be made from a malicious perspective – he simply doesn’t think about whether what he is doing is right or wrong, curiosity wins over morality every time.

Topher (played by the actor Fran Kurtz) looking remarkably calm (source: Wikipedia)

Topher (played by the actor Fran Kurtz) looking remarkably calm (source: Wikipedia)

The point in the show where this really starts to have negative repercussions for everyone (not just Topher or his immediate circle) is when the company he works for gives him unlimited funds to explore his ideas, with no-one holding him to account at all. The results are disastrous and only after does Topher realise that perhaps his unconfined curiosity is dangerous. This led me to think about other ‘evil scientists’ in literature. Now sure there are those who are just poor struggling scientists, who go through an industrial accident like falling into a vat of strangely coloured liquid with toxic properties (and you think they would stop keeping these vats just lying around), but more often than not they are either extremely wealthy themselves – or employed by someone extremely wealthy who encourages them to push their science as far as possible with no moral contraints. The one thing that I don’t ever remember seeing any of these scientists do is write a grant application. They don’t have to – either themselves or their sponsors are fabulously wealthy, so they don’t have to justify themselves.

So I started to wonder – do grant applications stop us from becoming evil scientists?! Well lets start with the idea that if we were all given access to unlimited funds, most of would probably still exercise some moral restraint in what we chose to research. Personally I don’t want to invent mind control technology or a better chemical weapon. And even if I did, I have too little faith in human nature to do it. Heck I don’t even want to research how people accept an idea rather than gain understanding because I’m worried about that research being used to influence people in a way they wouldn’t necessarily choose (and ok I do kinda want to research it – it’s interesting! But I probably won’t – understanding is more interesting to me). I think the idea of grant applications stopping us from being evil scientists is not so much related to the ‘evil scientist’ concept as the ‘indifferent scientist’. That’s what Topher is – he’s not evil; he’s indifferent. Grant applications make us think about the uses of our research, the importance of the data to people other than our immediate peers. The positive and perhaps the negative repercussions of that research.

I think very few people actually have it in them to throw themselves fully to the dark side, but a lot of people have the propensity to ignore the plight of people different to them, or even to dismiss the concerns of those people as irrelevant. Making us write the grant applications makes us think of other reasons to do our research, or reasons to be cautious when doing it. In a way they are similar to ethical applications, but with a long range view. The big picture ethical implications of our research.

I would like to think that with unlimited funds I wouldn’t become an evil scientist, or even an indifferent one. But maybe that’s something we should think about more. After all, indifference can be the first step down the road to a future I’m not sure I wanted to be a part of.

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