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  1. becca
    6 January 2011 • 2:35 PM

    Pure intentions don’t cut it, and Oppenheimer of all people is not a suitable ethical role model. Dr. Nichols is admirable precisely for *not* letting himself ‘off the hook’.

    This is an acute issue to me as a microbiologist. The first lab I worked in as a lowly undergrad studied bacterial toxins. I joined just after the anthrax attacks of 2011. My PI was enthusiastic about the new possibilities for funding through bioterrorism programs, but less than happy about having to go around and ask everyone in the lab if they were from “Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, North Korea or Cuba” so as to know if she needed to put them on a special list. This was around the same time I was taking a course on nuclear weapons, nuclear war and arms control, and reading a great deal about Oppenheimer, among others. The whole thing left a very sour taste in my mouth. Also a passionate conviction that biologists (really, anyone who works on medical problems) *must* be better and more morally responsible than physicists.

    There is not a dearth of fascinating and incredibly valuable research that needs to be done that can NOT be used to kill people. Can we just start there? Is that really such a huge imposition on scientific curiosity?

    This dual-use chemistry stuff *is* ethically complex and messy. This is not stuff designed to kill people, after all. I don’t think Dr. Nichols should stop his work- I think it has a lot of positive value. But a huge part of his work is weighing that value. I commend him precisely because he has the courage to grapple with the issue- precisely because he doesn’t let pressure to publish trump all. He’s willing to engage in self-censure, and human enough to admit he might not always draw the line in exactly the right place. But he’ll try. That’s why he’s exactly the type of person that should do this type of research.

  2. sharon boyd
    6 January 2011 • 2:36 PM

    Dr. Nichols worries about the illicit use of his drugs when he is researching for the good of society. He can not and should not feel responsible. Not to be cold, but the number of deaths indirectly related to his pursuit of knowledge is minimal compared to so much else that is being done legally and even celebrated, ie, alcohol. Use, misuse is an individual choice. Continue the good work, doctor.

  3. becca
    6 January 2011 • 2:43 PM

    HA! *2011 should have been 2001, obviously. Apparently, for once, I am so ready for the old year to end that writing the new year is easy. Or typofingerfail. Or something.

  4. biochembelle
    7 January 2011 • 7:37 AM

    David, excellent post-a great read to pair with Dr. Nichols’ commentary. It is sad that research intended to benefit others is bent to nefarious purposes. The messages sent to Dr. Nichols after the WSJ piece was published bring to mind that some individuals still view scientists as amoral or ambivalent toward the negative social impacts of their work, which is, with rare exceptions, an unfair caricature, as illustrated by Dr. Nichols’ commentary. Dr. Nichols is to be commended for his research and for his courage to consider its unintended consequences.

  5. fusilier
    7 January 2011 • 8:55 AM

    Just an FYI: Yesterday’s (1/6/11) issue of the Indianapolis Star has an article on Nichols, excerpted from the Nature piece. Maybe if the issue is out in front of the general public, and not localized, there might be some resolution.

    James 2:24

  6. yogi-one
    10 January 2011 • 12:06 PM

    It’s the age-old struggle against the darker side of human nature, and I agree that no scientist is going to win that battle single-handedly.

    The best the scientific community can do is perhaps restrict explicit instructions about how to make potentially life threatening compounds to only the more technical professional peer-reviewed circles.

    A more drastic approach would be to institute a military-style system of security clearances to help insure that only people with a trusted background, proper clearance, and who are currently assigned to projects where they necessarily work with certain classes of substances have access to labs where the work is being done, or archives where the knowledge is stored.

    You will of course have breaches even then, and one of the most thorny problems is what happens when a previously trusted colleague caves in to the temptation to “moonlight” using his special expertise, or simply violate the trust by leaking knowledge outside protected professional circles.

    But I believe by judicious publishing practices, or perhaps some new legislation, we can at least cut down on the easy availability of formulas and techniques for producing potentially damaging substances.

  7. Ian Anthony
    12 January 2011 • 9:13 AM

    I totally agree with the comments made by ‘Sharon Boyd’ above. A scientist cannot feel responsible for misuse of a compound that they have produced legitimately. The blame for the misuse of the compound lies squarely with the people who wish to ‘experiment’ with the compound or, even worse, those who promote the compound for so called health benefits and use photographs of the scientist/chemist in a disingenuous way to give the product a false integrity!
    What a world we live in!

  8. Andrea Sella
    13 January 2011 • 5:01 AM

    yogi-one: the irony in your comments is that that climate change deniers often claim that science is a closed shop where only the inner circle can have access to the real information. And that scientists manipulate and hide “the real data” and only publish to further their own nefarious ends. It is a powerful meme.

    The case of Nichols and others shows yet again precisely the opposite – that the whole aim of science since, I guess, Robert Boyle (though he too was not averse to the odd sealed envelope) was to write and publish transparently about what the world was like.

    As it is organic chemists complain about how secretive the pharmaceutical world is, with rafts of compounds hidden away in patents and failed drugs trials left unpublished.
    The procedures described by Shulgin and Nichols appear in journals like Journal of Organic Chemistry or Journal of Medicinal Chemistry etc – the scientific literature doesn’t come much more technical than that, and i don’t see how you screen – the mechanics of it don’t bear thinking about it.

    The deeper point is how we deal with the fact that human beings actively seek out pleasure. What is more, the plasticity of the brain is such that they can derive pleasure from things that are explicitly signposted as dangerous/toxic etc. Simplistically just think of how we all learn to love those bitter alkaloids.
    So the issue is how to modify legislation to take account of this. And maybe we need to look again at prohibition – it didn’t work too well for alcohol in the US in the 20′s. Alcohol is widely available in many Islamic countries in spite of bans and severe penalties. Prohibition hugely increases the margins for the people who flout the laws, and that has all manner of unintended consequences – just look at Mexico.
    We need deeper thought about how we minimize the risks for people and more evidence-based legislation, rather than legislation by tabloid newspaper. ‘Cos hand-wringing just isn’t going to get us anywhere.

  9. picky
    4 October 2011 • 11:59 PM

    . Other scientists whose work has been used for nefarious purposes are likely to share these feelings.

    You’ve used nefarious incorrectly, I’m afraid it means evil.

  10. David Kroll
    7 October 2011 • 6:31 AM

    I did indeed intend to use the word as defined but was perhaps a bit strong. “Unlawful” is probably more appropriate.

  11. Drago
    8 September 2013 • 6:46 PM

    Talking about social responsibilities, please turn your attention to the crimes against humanity being perpetrated by Monsanto the chemical weapon company.
    Let the psychonaut researchers carry out their scientific exploration of human consciousness with reliably pure substances and without legal persecution, which amounts to a form of religious persecution.
    Fulfill your responsibility to protect by ensuring that potential users are well-educated, and any abusers have access to treatment.

    If we are not free to explore our own consciousness, it is absurd to pretend we live in a free society.

  12. David Nichols, Legal Highs, and the Social Responsibilities of the Scientist | Liminal Law
    7 June 2014 • 7:22 PM

    […] adjunct to my post Legal Analog Drugs: Should They Have Allies?, this article describes how the unregulated drug markets agonize chemists and […]

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