Friday, December 21, 2018

REGARDING ETHICS IN SCIENCE AND POLITICS

By Lily Hikam*)

Last month, the scientific community graced the headlines of many news outlet in the United States and the world, a feat that wasn’t easy to achieve, not when the competition was whatever the Trump administration failed to do or whoever the President attack on twitter for some reasons or another.

What made the scientific community became media fodder last month was the revelation that a scientist in China, He Jiankui, announced that he had successfully modified the genome of two embryos by deleting the CCR5 gene, conferring the embryos with immunity from the HIV virus, which he then implanted in a woman resulting in the birth of twin girls.

You might ask what’s the big deal? Genetic engineering has been done a lot of times. Well, this was a special case, because this scientist purposefully used a technique called “gene editing,” which has been a staple in many labs across the world, to modify the genome of germline cells. Most and acceptable forms of genetic engineering has been done on somatic cells, also known as adult cells. Modifications on adult cells are not passed on to the next generation, it stays with the individual, but modifications made on germline cells will affect the next generation and subsequently the gene pool.

Though widely used, gene editing still carried risks and off-targeting effects that are still numerous and unknown. Therefore using it on germline cells poses great danger and many unforeseen consequences, which was why the scientific community unanimously agreed that its use will be restricted to somatic cells, or if it was to be used on germline cells it was strictly for research purpose and not reproductive purposes.

Now, there has been no published or peer reviewed article on this claim so there might still be a chance that this claim was just a hoax or a sensationalistic attempt at gaining more exposure for his research but the damage has been done. In this instance, He Jiankui forsake all the ethics and regulations governing genome modification studies to needlessly prove a point that didn’t have to be proven in the first place.

What would be the benefit of erasing the CCR5 gene? Just the possibility that the girls might get infected with HIV in the future? What he has done cost the scientific community the trust of the society, something crucial for the continuation of scientific research.
Another area that has been damaged by the lack of ethics is the area of politics. This is especially true when I reflect on the daily happenings of the United States government, particularly the prevalence of blatant and unashamed lies as political strategies. From my vantage point of this matter, American politics have changed drastically in the thirteen years I’ve lived in this land of the free.

When I first came here, in 2005, the president was GW Bush, a Republican who was much maligned for his disastrous handling of the economy and starting an unjustifiable war in the Middle East. The US didn’t look too good in the eyes of the world back then, but at least the people still have an ethical president who wouldn’t blatantly lie to his people.

Then came Obama, whose presidency (2008-2016) seemed to bring with it change and a new way of doing things. Perhaps it was his presidency that was the most consequential of all, as it exposed the fact that despite having an African American president there were still some segments of the population that wasn’t ready for that change, for the shake up in the status quo.

Obama as a president strived to accomplish what he promised in his campaign. He accomplished some, like the Health Care bill despite strong opposition from Republicans, and he failed to deliver on some of his promises too. But he too did not lie to his people. Before this current presidency under Donald Trump, any revelation that the president lies or have tried to cover something up or tried to influence public opinion on some issue was unheard of.

Recently, however, it seems like when Trump lies it was just another day in office. We are dangerously close to normalizing this type of behavior. From his fantastical claims that his inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s to how he repeatedly said that Mexico would be paying for the wall. All of which are not true. There are photographic evidence showing less people during his inauguration at the National Mall issued by the National Parks Services, nonetheless. And Mexico has repeatedly said they won’t be paying for the wall, while the Trump administration recently claimed falsely through the White House Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders, that money saved from trade deficits would be used to finance the wall. It obviously makes no sense since money saved on trade deficit would go to the business that participated in the trade deal, not the government. Which still means that Mexico is not paying for the wall. So it was another lie that she was trying to peddle to their base on behalf of her boss.

During the midterm elections, Trump and the Republican party repeatedly lied to the voters about how they’ve been fighting to protect Americans’ rights to still be covered by insurance even if they have pre-existing conditions when in fact, they tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act that ensures nobody could be denied coverage even if they have pre-existing condition.

Additionally, to drum up support and to turn out his base to vote for the GOP, Trump used fear-mongering tactics to falsely portray a group of refugees fleeing the violence and chaos of Honduras, most of whom are women and children, to be a pack of violent gang members with some ISIS members hidden among them, trying to invade the United States.

This second lie was the most consequential of all since his words inadvertently influenced the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, who felt that Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was the one who sponsored the Honduran caravan to invade his country.

Still more stories emerged from the depth of the Trump Administration’s lie box. First was the tweet that the US Army has successfully defeated ISIS in Syria, when in reality ISIS was still going strong in Syria with 30,000 members and counting. Another revelation came from the news that his family’s charitable foundation was forced to dissolve by the state of New York because it amounted to nothing more than a personal checkbook for him and his family, and not a non-profit foundation. Of course, he denied this again even with the mounting evidence that the Attorney General’s office had gathered against him.

Lying seemed to be the main political strategy when it comes to this administration. So much so that the Washington Post had to make a new scale to rate the untruths and lies that Trump repeats on a daily basis. The new rating called the “Bottomless Pinocchio” that the Post claims to be a “dubious distinction [that] will be awarded to politicians who repeat a false claim so many times that they are, in effect, engaging in campaigns of disinformation.”

And so far, 14 statements made by him has been granted the Bottomless Pinocchio. Among these are: the US pays the most for NATO, Democrats collude with Russia, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has conflicts of interests, and building a wall will help curb illegal drug flow across the border.

These stories illustrated how important ethics is in all aspect of life, be it in scientific research or running a country. It wasn’t wrong for Donald Trump to want the GOP to win the midterms or get his policies passed by Congress. But, it is wrong and unethical of him to lie about the Central American Caravan coming to the US to steal jobs and murder people to incite his base to vote for GOP candidates. And it is wrong and unethical of him to spread untruths and cast doubt on the Special Counsel and the FBI, because the public’s trust in law enforcement officials is crucial for law enforcement to be able to do their jobs properly.

We are dangerously close to normalizing lies in our politics. And it is prudent to remind ourselves that what is currently happening, be it in the US or in Indonesia, are NOT normal. Presidents and other leaders aren’t supposed to normalize the lies or divide his people, inciting hatred and indifference while doing so. In the current context of Indonesian politics, the ulamas as influential leaders of civil society aren’t supposed to deploy vulgar and hateful languages and discourses to enhance their political campaigns. We have to continuously fight against the people who are trying to make it seem so.

As we all know, “the end does not justify the means.” How you achieve your goal matter just as much as what the goal is. Having the knowledge and the means to do something doesn’t automatically mean that it is permissible to do so. Having ethics as the basis for all actions is, undoubtedly, a necessary guide to prevent unintended consequences of words and actions.

*) PhD Candidate,
Zaragoza Lab
UCI Cardiogenomics Clinical and Research Program
Department of Biological Chemistry
The University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine
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