Between Science and Societal Values

By UM News

Between Science and Societal Values

By UM News
Alan I. Leshner, Arsht Distinguished Speaker in Ethics, told his audience that one should “never discuss floods with Noah in the audience."

As the Arsht Distinguished Speaker in Ethics, Alan I. Leshner told a full house of UM students, faculty, and invited guests last week that one should “never discuss floods with Noah in the audience,” a light-heartened reference to the fact that he is a scientist, not an ethicist.

Yet, in an animated display of both humor and intellect, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the executive publisher of the journal Science regaled the audience with his insights on why science and societal values often conflict.

For both to prosper, Leshner said, people need a fundamental understanding of science and technology, and science needs a strong relationship with people. But that relationship is “currently experiencing turbulence,” due in part to issues within science, but also because science often challenges societal core values or personal belief systems. He cited beliefs in extrasensory perception, astrology, and when human life begins, as examples.

“Dr. Leshner made clear that science without ethics is rudderless and disconnected from the lives of the citizens whose taxes pay for research,” said Kenneth Goodman, co-director of the UM Ethics Programs and director of the Miller School of Medicine’s Bioethics Program. “That said, when those citizens have trouble distinguishing magic from science, the stakes are much higher—and the needs and challenges of high-quality research are much greater.”

Anita Cava, director of the UM Business Ethics Program and co-director of the UM Ethics Programs, said Leshner’s animated and thoughtful presentation accomplished exactly what philanthropist Adrienne Arsht intended with her gift to UM Ethics Programs, namely “to spark discussion about thorny and relevant ethical issues in our University community. She would especially appreciate that students asked most of the questions in the Q & A following the talk.”

Before taking the helm at AAAS, the world’s largest, multidisciplinary scientific and engineering society, Leshner, a psychologist, directed the National Institute on Drug Abuse and was deputy director and acting director of the National Institute of Mental Health, both at the National Institutes of Health. In 1996, President Clinton conferred the Presidential Distinguished Executive Rank Award on Leshner, the highest award in federal service.

Arsht’s gift to the University of Miami Ethics Programs supports several initiatives, including the Arsht Distinguished Speaker Series in Ethics, which brings nationally and internationally recognized experts to the University for student education, faculty development, and community engagement.

In addition to directing the Ethics Programs, Professors Cava and Goodman are responsible for the Arsht Ethics Initiatives, an initiative to coordinate the speaker series, a university-wide program for ethics research grants and a suite of other special activities, including undergraduate ethics debates.