These days the year of chemistry begins, and this is nature in the first issue from 06/01/2011 a number of contributions worth. For me the contribution of the chemist David Nichols on page 7 was of special interest. Nichols looks back on years of a successful research career, which was largely devoted to synthesize agents in the field of medicinal chemistry.
In recent years he has made the startling find that the results of his research were used not only for the healing of people, but also for creation of synthetic drugs, and thus as a means to harm people and kill them.
Nichols was horrified, and his text reveals that he has to bear heavily on this knowledge. “I have never considered my research to be dangerous, and in fact I hoped one day to develop medicines to help people” – that’s the key sentence.
At first I was a little bit amazed about the naiveté of the scientist. Could it really be hidden from him for 40 years that not only medicine can be produced with the research results of his craft but also deadly drugs? Could he really have escaped that all scientific research cam be used for the benefit and even for the detriment of the people? Was it really possible that a scientist who has the best time of his research in the second half of the 20th Century, had never spent his thinking on atomic bombs, chemical weapons and on biological warfare?
But maybe these questions, already containing an opinion, are unjust or wrong. Not all research is equally at risk of being abused. So the answers to the questions of how the universe or the continents were developed, or whether Nero set really fire to Rome, are not in the same sense usable for the production of weapons as research on energy-releasing processes, and unwanted side effects are to be feared less with the results of the research on Shakespeare than the research on artificially synthesized chemicals.
But at least every researcher, who contributes to the practical mastery of the world, should be aware of the fact that the balance of harm and benefits of his work is not predictable, and that they not depend on the desires and hopes of the scientist. A chemist can be life long work for finding medicin for serious diseases but at the end this work is only the basis for poison and destruction – that’s just the nature of the research that it penetrates into uncharted terrain and turns of this site during the survey, in a way that is not predictable.
Honesty is necessary: not use usefulness gives the scientists the satisfaction, but the realization of the new, whether it is useful or not. Usefulness is – at best – an incentive. Who wants to be sure that his findings are non-hazardous, must not go to the lab, and must not create the pre-conditions for experimental work at his desk – he should deal with Homer or should count exoplanets.
But it can be argued that the society is more interested in the practical benefits of science as in intellectual pleasures. We are not disinterested in practical usefulness like the ancient Greeks. Also, that’s right (and that should also remember David Nichols): There is a societal consensus that we want to have this dangerous research and that we want to use their blessings and that we can limit their damage. Whether this consensus is right, that’s a different question, and certainly experienced researchers such as Nichols are the best experts to assess their own discipline in this concern. Without embellishment but also without regret, the rash effects of scientific and technical developments – often mediated by politics, economy, education and market – are to be analyzed. Remorse and horror is not necessary, but the critical discourse on the basic assumptions of our community.
Nichols D (2011). Legal highs: the dark side of medicinal chemistry. Nature, 469 (7328) PMID: 21209630