Saturday, March 25, 2006

Moral Dilemma

Today's post is going to get a little heavy. Basically, I value your opinion and since all of you come from different backgrounds with different political views, I want to get your take on this issue.

I'll start with something neat though. I went to the departmental seminar Friday. The guy speaking was a big deal neurobiologist doing some work on neural dynamics. He takes brain cells from mice and grows them in a culture. He places several electrodes in the culture and gives the cells electrical stimulation and records the electrical response to the stimulation. The next step in his research was to turn the response from the cells into something "meaningful" like movement of a picture of a mouse on a computer screen. He uses the movement of the mouse on the screen to determine the electrical stimulation that the cells receive next. He essentially sees if the cells can learn and interact with the mouse on the screen by using a closed feedback loop on the cells. If that isn't entirely creepy enough, he next replaced the computer mouse with a robot mouse. The robot mouse received input based on the location of a second robot mouse whose movements were random. The closed loop became: random mouse movement-->signal to cells-->signal to robot mouse-->random mouse movement
What ended up happening in his lab was the robot mouse sort of chased the random mouse around for awhile. Keep in mind, the robot mouse was being steered by a Petri dish full of brain cells. It totally blew my mind. The next step, the speaker said, was a plan funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse where he incorporates dopamine into the closed loop. Then there will be crack-addicted brain cells driving robots. All hell's gonna break loose.

Where am I going with all this? Well, on the speaker's very last slide were his ackowledgements to all the agencies that fund his work. Under the list was a big peace sign with the phrase "No Military Funding." This brings up a sticky area for us scientists. I am not trying to make a blanket statement, but many scientists tend to be liberal and against our current war. Some of the most influential scientists are even pacifist. Should those of us who aren't thrilled with our current military predicament accept funding from military agencies?

I personally don't know the answer to this question. It isn't as easy as it appears to be on the surface. Let's immediately toss out the most obvious objections to military funding, i.e. developing technology that goes directly into weapons used soley to kill people. I don't know a lot of scientists that would be able to do that though they must exist. To me, that's a no brainer. But consider this. People in my line of work develop devices that are at the forefront of technology for things like wireless communication, magnetic memory storage, and portable refrigeration. All this is technology that the military is willing to throw money at you to develop because they want the top of the line for soldiers. I want our soldiers to be safe, it's not their fault they're fighting this horrific war but how do I know they are using my wireless technology to defend themselves and not to wreak havoc? And whether or not I accept the money that is thrown at me doesn't change the fact that in most cases the technology civilians use is handed down from the military anyway. This is our defense-oriented society; the big bucks go to military funding and Joe Schmoe has to be patient until the army is willing to pass it along. This mentality doesn't leave a lot of options for us applied physicists. These days funding is tighter than it's ever been and my advisor cannot afford to pick and choose whose money to accept. We're lucky to have anything (for the record, I am currently funded by the National Science Foundation, though I used to be funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agencies until that ran out).

Overall, I guess I think it depends on an individual's situation. I don't meant to criticize this scientist that spoke Friday, but being a big name studying such fascination science I'm sure he can afford to pick and choose his funding. And it's a lot more obvious to me how the military can use crack-addicted mouse-brain robots to harm others. But what about us more mundane, gray-area physicists? Am I justifying accepting money from "the man"? Am I compromising my beliefs and being a hypocrite? Or am I just going through a typical crisis of conscience, one every scientist must face?

If I haven't bored you to tears yet, check out this article from the Village Voice I found about the speaker I referred to earlier.


brainhell said...

> Should those of us who aren't thrilled with our current military predicament accept funding from military agencies?


You chose your research topics. Military funding is OK, if you're OK with the research. I can see how you might not want to develop a napalm for children, but that's a separate issue. If you want to do physics, why not take military funding.

Scott said...

I heard it once said that many of the scientists that developed an atomic bomb didn't even know what they were working on. I don't know if that's true, but it could be. I think you would have to shun science altogether to avoid working on a product that will have a military use. You know my politics, but even if I were a conscientious objector, I wouldn't see the hypocrisy of being funded by the military. It's like the argument of gun ownership--is it the gun that kills, or is the the wielder?

Scott said...

I meant to say "the the anonymous wielder."

Runner Girl FL said...

I agree there is no clear cut answer, and I don’t think there is a one of us who hasn’t done the same circles in their brain. Here are some ramblings on the topic:

I remember stating to a recruiter when he asked me why I wasn't interested in the military after my M.S., that I knew with my background that I would end up on some project that I didn't want to work on. I think that military funding is eventually does get to Joe on the street and that is happening faster these days, but in the military I wouldn’t be able to pick to not work on a project.

I also think you are right that you want to keep the soldiers safe. You are also right that you will not be able to guarantee that they don’t turn it into a weapon. So far “people” have been very efficient in turning scientific research into weapons, and even if the military didn’t pay to have it developed doesn’t mean they won’t get there hands on the research later, replicate it from the papers written, or take over the patents applied for… if they want to make it into a bomb they don’t have to pay for the initial research.

We need the military, the military is sent where the politicians send them. It is the politicians who have the decision to go to, or continue the war.

Can you get funding from NASA?!?!!?  or better yet, hurry up and get big and famous and win that thing that A. Nobel set up and then you can pick and choose who to give your research to, and who can fund you.

Scott – I think the scientists knew what they were working on but none of them had any idea of the power they were playing with.

DearOldDad said...

Reality bites! As with most aspects of real life there is much more grey than black and white. You are being trained to explore nuance; use this to your advantage. If DARPA is willing to fund one of your projects going forward, examine what’s in it for you and what’s in it for them. Be aware that while you are working heads-down to corral and control magnetic nano particles, their focus might be on using the information gained in your efforts to be part of not just a defensive effort, but quite possibly an offensive one as well.

You have to go into something like this with your eyes open and periodically reevaluate your decision. A prime example of pursuing an unchecked relationship with the man is to look at the member of our family that was so deeply in bed with the defense industry for so long that if finally pushed him over the edge when he looked at his body of work and saw what he was actually responsible for. Opportunities abound – but they will extract their pound of moral flesh.

This is one of the more complex dilemmas you will likely face. I encourage you to never say never, but always look at the long-range effects of your professional actions. You have morals and a strong set of ethics – use them.

BTW - I think the entire audience of your blog would do well to see “Why We Fight” ( )

minnesotablue said...

Sometimes you have to look at the greater good. To keep this in perspective, just remember, funding is difficult to come by!!!

Scott said...

Nat's dad - I just watched the clips from Why We Fight, and I was quite impressed. I want to see this when I get the chance. I've never seen Eisenhower speak, but he was charismatic. I don't buy it however that we are fighting terrorism as a nod to the defense industry, as that would imply that not only did we know about 9/11 before it happened, but we orchestrated it. I know some people believe that, and I'm making any assumptions on your beliefs either. That said, the message of Why We Fight is strong and must be heeded. Watch closely and be informed.

magnetbabe said...

Thanks everyone, for telling me what you think. I must admit I was expecting some more polarized opinions, but the fact that none of you have aboslutely concrete answers reaffirms my initial thoughts that this isn't a simpe matter.
On the surface, if I'm doing the science I want to do and feel good about it, who cares? Like Scott says, guns don't kill people, people kill people. But I wouldn't want to put a gun in a maniac's hand. Technically he has a free will, but being a facilitator to violence would even make Charleton Heston uncomfortable, or whatever "anonymous" gun wielder you choose (BTW, ha ha, Scott. Very fuuny.).
And I know there are plenty of funding agencies out there but as this war drags on, I have a feeling military funding will become the only option. Which I guess is a moot point if the military will get at any technology they want anyway. I think Dad is right (as always...) that as long as I keep my eyes open and stay true to myself I can stay on the side of the good guys while still accepting money from Big Brother. It's all about finding your comfort zone, right?

A little off topic but responding to the atomic bomb stuff: I wouldn't be at all surprised if many of the lower guys on the project had no idea what they were doing. It seems to me the less people that know the ultimate goal, the better. I have long been meaning to read more stuff about the Manhattan Project. I did read a fascinating account of the German nuclear weapons effort called "Hitler's Uranium Club." Very interesting stuff.

DearOldDad said...

Scott – thanks for your thoughts on the trailer. I want to make a short clarification and then I will get off the subject for fear of starting another wild fire (you remember what happened last time…) I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I don’t believe the powers that be had prior knowledge to or colluded with the 9/11 attackers – nor is that a point this film tried to promote. Speaking as one who is being slowly conscripted into the older generation, I am afraid I’m seeing history repeat itself and I believe it is necessary to question the actions of your government. What I will tell you it that left unchecked; they will give away the store. Left unaccountable, don’t expect their actions to be highly principled. This issue does a remarkable job of crossing the isles.

lefty_grrrl said...

Magnetbabe - If we made all our decisions (where we shop, what state we live in, the types of cars we drive, where we work, etc.) based on personal politics, this would be a mighty difficult world to live in.

Oh wait... But seriously, I don't think you've got a major conflict here. I'm not opposed to the military. I'm opposed to senseless war. It's different.

And, even though I haven't seen Why We Fight yet, I'd just like to point out that the military industrial complex is alive and well, worse that Eisenhower could possibly imagine. And this war (as all modern war) is merely a reflection of that. Now, whether we want to look in the mirror or not is a completely different story...

Scott said...

I agree totally, and the trailer was effective enough to attract my attention to the issue of accountability. It was a bit scary and apocalyptic.

mr. schprock said...

Well, let me ask you this: if it weren't for mititary funding, would we have Spam? Huh? Imagine a world without Spam.

If you are willing to take things to a ridiculous extreme, anything could have a military or fatal application. A string of rosary beads could be used as a garotte, for instance. I think all you have to do is weigh the potential benefits of what you're doing against whatever evil applications your research might yield. Anything over, say, 60% "beneficial to mankind" on the Good Versus Bad Scale is OK. Is that too simplistic? Probably, but it works for me.