Every day, algorithms select which news stories appear in our social media feeds. Airplanes allow global travel at nearly the speed of sound, while also emitting greenhouse gases that accelerate the impacts of climate change. And recent advances in DNA sequencing and editing enable us to understand our fundamental genetic programming — and potentially change it.
While it may be challenging to anticipate where science might lead us next, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are taking steps to ensure that the public has a greater say in future scientific advances, and that questions of ethics and social equity take a prominent role in scientific decision-making.
UC Berkeley announced today that the campus will be home to a new Kavli Center for Ethics, Science, and the Public, which, alongside a second center at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, will connect scientists, ethicists, social scientists, science communicators and the public in necessary and intentional discussions about the potential impacts of scientific discoveries.
“In addition to answering fundamental questions about the ethics of science, the Kavli Center is going to create a generation of scientific leaders who have seen how other scientific disciplines grapple with ethical problems and who have real training in the philosophical analysis of these questions,” said UC Berkeley computer science professor Stuart Russell, who will direct the new center. “It’s not just about changing public policy, it’s about changing what it means to be a good scientist in every discipline that can have an impact on the public.”
The Kavli Center will be led by a core group of prominent scientists, ethicists, philosophers and journalists on campus, each with extensive experience confronting ethical issues in their respective fields. In addition to Russell, these leaders include Nobel laureate Saul Perlmutter, who provided some of the first evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating; Nobel and Kavli Prize laureate Jennifer Doudna, known for her discovery of the gene-editing tool CRISPR; theoretical and moral philosopher Jay Wallace; bioethicist Jodi Halpern; neuroscientist Jack Gallant; and historian and writer Elena Conis.
By recruiting and mentoring a diverse group of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars and fellows, the team hopes to equip the next generation of scientists with tools to engage deeply with the ethical and societal implications of their research, and to create new and innovative ways to involve the public in the scientific process.
While the center will initially harness the campus’s leadership in three scientific fields — gene editing, neuroscience and artificial intelligence (AI) — to develop new ethical frameworks and public engagement tools, it will eventually expand its scope to include other scientific disciplines that impact society.
“I am delighted that UC Berkeley will be the home of the new Kavli Center. As a public research university that prides itself on the cutting-edge endeavors of our world class researchers, we have a special responsibility to help scientists navigate the sometimes complex ethical implications of their work and strengthen engagement with a diverse public,“ said Chancellor Carol Christ.
To achieve its goals, the Kavli Center will operate in a hub, spoke and axle structure. The hub will form the core of the center, where experts from various disciplines come together with philosophers and social scientists to discuss fundamental ethical questions posed by scientific discovery. Each spoke will link these activities to specific scientific disciplines, while the axle will enlist experts in subjects such as law, business, public policy and journalism to help engage the policymakers and the public in discussions about the potential impacts of the science.
“We’re embarking on a democratization of the way we think, collaborate and communicate about scientific discoveries and their ethical aspects — and ensuring the public is included,” said The Kavli Foundation President Cynthia Friend. “It’s long past due for this to happen.”