The ethical scientist in a time of uncertainty

Cell. 2021 Mar 18;184(6):1430-1439. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2021.02.051.


All of science takes place amidst a world shaken by uncertainty, social and political upheaval, and challenges to truthful testimony. Just at the moment in which increasing control over biology has been theorized, our social world has become increasingly contentious and its values more divisive. Using the example of gene drives for malaria control to explore the problem of deep uncertainty in biomedical research, I argue that profound uncertainty is an essential feature. Applying the language and presumptions of the discipline of philosophical ethics, I describe three types of uncertainty that raise ethical challenges in scientific research. Rather than mitigate these challenges with excessive precautions and limits on progress, I suggest that researchers can cultivate classic values of veracity, courage, humility, and fidelity in their research allowing science to proceed ethically under conditions of deep uncertainty.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • CRISPR-Cas Systems / genetics
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Ethics, Research*
  • Genetics
  • Humans
  • Malaria / genetics
  • Malaria / prevention & control
  • Research Personnel*
  • Risk
  • Uncertainty*