Friendship and partiality

Old friends sitting on a park bench in Guatemala. Photo: Keneth Cruz

Old friends sitting on a park bench in Guatemala. Photo: Keneth Cruz

On Monday 6 July 2015 I guest hosted BioethxChat – a weekly Twitter discussion based around bioethical issues – on the topic of friendship and partiality. We had 40 participants during the live, online discussion and a few of us continued conversing during the following days.

The discussion was organised into four topic questions, each discussed for approximately 10 or 15 minutes. These were:

  1. What is friendship? What makes a friend a true friend?
  2. Does friendship have intrinsic or merely instrumental value?
  3. Can impartialists coherently maintain true friendships or value friendships intrinsically?
  4. Is impartiality required in moral judgements? If so, to what degree? Does this change with context, e.g. public vs. private morality?

Although these questions are not bioethical in a conventional or typical sense, their answers can be relevant to a range of bioethical dilemmas. Some examples which were brought up in our discussion were of a medical professional reporting on the malpractice of a peer who was also their friend and of medical professionals triaging patients in partial or impartial ways.

To many in the literature and many BioethxChat participants, friendships are something that complete or add to the persons involved. My brother said to me once that friendship was like a sculpture that two people work on. I agree, and think that some of the most beautiful sculptures are those which can be viewed as beautiful from all sides – in the same way, friendships are most beautiful, I think, when both persons put effort into the friendship.

However, can a friendship be valued despite instrumental concerns or does it need to result in something outside of itself to be worthy of value? A quintessentially consequentialist response is presumably that friendship should only be valued by what it gives rise to. But if what is being valued is not the friendship itself but rather what it gives rise to, is friendship a true value? Not according to arguments by Michael Stoker and others. In his paper ‘The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories’, Stoker provides the example of being bored and lonely in hospital when your friend, Smith, visits you not (as you find out) because he is simply your friend, but because he felt it was his duty (subscribing to deontology) or because he could think of no better way to improve utility (subscribing to consequentialism, specifically utilitarianism). It’s argued that Smith isn’t as true a friend as someone who visited you because they valued your friendship. Many BioethxChat participants seemed to agree with this sentiment and some said that in their close relationships and friendships, instrumental aspects were not a major part of what they valued. However, several participants noted that instrumental aspects damages or gives rise to intrinsic value, as in the case of a friend who ‘uses’ the friendship for their own benefit or when two people begin a friendship and are only at the start of developing their intrinsic value for one another.

My own view on this debate is that while this ‘problem of friendship’ for consequetialists (and impartialists generally) is a genuine and worrying problem, there are still options to consider. I present one such option in a paper recently submitted to a journal which I call the ‘personification solution’. I argue that if we agree that personhood grants some intrinsic value to a subject, and it can be shown that friendships possess some level of personhood, then friendships (and relationships generally) can be intrinsically valued by consequentialists and perhaps other impartialists to some degree. If consequentialists can coherently value relationships not only for their instrumental value, but also for their intrinsic value, then this might allow them to engage in ‘true’ (or ‘truer’) friendships and relationships. Such a view also has broader implications for other normative perspectives on the ethics of friendship and relationships generally.

As for the ultimate roles of partiality and impartiality in ethical decision-making, on face value it seems that neither can be used without escaping potential problems: being partial to friends and family is a natural and perhaps essential part of being human, but we can’t justifiably ignore a stranger’s dire needs. Though, in a hospital emergency department, would it be right of a medical professional to see to their friend or family member’s ailment before a stranger’s? It probably depends on the ailments of both the friend/family member and the stranger, but to what degree? I’m not sure, but I know I regularly give friends and family members gifts on special occasions when I could have donated them to charity or spent the money more effectively.

The ethics of child participation in significantly risky non-therapeutic research

Children in Conakry, Guinea, on 14 January 2015. (Photo: UNMEER/Martine Perret)

Children in Conakry, Guinea, on 14 January 2015.
(Photo: UNMEER/Martine Perret)

After recently returning to Melbourne, Australia from Geneva, Swtizerland, where I was the 2015 Monash-WHO Bioethics Fellow at the World Health Organization headquarters in the Global Health Ethics Unit, I have revisited a paper I wrote in November last year on the ethics of child participation in significantly risky non-therapeutic research.

At the time of writing this paper, a safe and effective Ebola vaccine was unavailable and there were many questions related to how to produce one while maintaining existing ethical standards for research involving vulnerable populations. I used this as an example of why I think there are many situations in which it is ethical to allow children to participate in significantly risky non-therapeutic research.

Here are the conclusions I ultimately arrived at:

The principles which can justify significantly risky nontherapeutic research on children are a combination of: (1) direct or indirect benefits to the child participants now and/or in the future (and these benefits need not necessarily be medical, they can also be socioeconomic or otherwise non-medical); (2) a high standard of informed consent that fundamentally focuses on the child participant’s understanding (and capacity for understanding) of relevant features of informed consent. Researchers, parents and guardians, as well as child participants themselves, have different roles and obligations towards one another. This is not an issue of seeking to find excuses to expose children to risk, but rather an issue of seeking the least risky and most ethical way to do so if and when required by public health emergencies or to achieve directly beneficial scientific breakthroughs.

As I do not have any strong inclinations for having this published elsewhere, I have made it available for others via the philpapers archive.

Can I still enjoy a Willy Moon song?

Photo: Alison Curtis

Photo: Alison Curtis

Sitting in a small Indonesian noodle cafe this afternoon in central Berlin, music was playing that I vaguely enjoyed. I say vaguely because, often, my musical knowledge is too limited – particularly to jazz and classical genres – to know if it’s something more than the song I like. Perhaps I simply like the genre, or the lyrics, or the guitar effect. Whatever it is, I don’t have the experience or knowledge to specifically identify what I like about it. Thus, vaguely.

There’s a lot of music I hear when I’m out and about that I find catchy or (again, I’ll use the term) vaguely to my liking. Thus I use what many people do, a smartphone app that will recognise the tune.

I pull out my phone and use the app, as I have many times before, and it recognises the song.

“Good,” I think to myself, “I’ll look it up on YouTube when I get home.”

I do, and I enjoy it once again. Then I read the top comment.

“Just passing by to dislike all his videos.”

Mob online justice. But justice for what?

As it turns out, the song I’d heard was one by Willy Moon, the singer who recently made hugely gross and demeaning comments – along with his wife – to a contestant on the New Zealand talent-finding show X-Factor. I don’t follow such shows or entertainment news generally, but the story was big enough to be hitting hard news sites which I frequent, albeit in the fringes, and I had read of the atrocious act well before hearing the song.

So here I was, having just found a nice meal and a nice song to match (the first two of which I’d enjoyed in a while, and both of which made me nostalgic for home somehow – probably just because I miss music, food, and company I enjoy back in Melbourne), and discovering that one half of that enjoyment had come from a despicable source.

Has my enjoyment been faked or tarnished? Faked, no. But tarnished? Certainly.

So what does one do in this situation? Can I unhypocritically continue to enjoy Willy Moon’s song?

While in no way directly related, it turns out that a much more serious iteration of this dilemma has been faced by others before us; the dilemma of what to do with the ‘good’ that stems from an abject source is not a new one. And, incidentally, I had only just seen – with my own eyes – the physical location of this abject source earlier the same day.

Before going for dinner at the Indonesian noodle place where I heard Moon’s song, I had come from a tour of a former Nazi concentration camp: Sachsenhausen. I’d never visited a camp before, and I can’t say I enjoyed any part of the harrowing experience.

Sachsenhausen, while not the first Nazi concentration camp built, was the nearest to Berlin and site of the headquarters which oversaw the entire Nazi apparatus of concentration and extermination camps from the mid-1930s to the end of World War II.

Passing the original foundation blocks of the barracks which held different political dissidents, ‘asocials’, ‘incompetents’, ‘gypsies’, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and – of course – Jews, nearly brought me to tears. Seeing ovens and hearing of the Schutzstaffel’s thought-processes of ‘efficiency’ when it came to the murdering of tens of thousands (at this particular camp) was almost too much to bear.

The last stop in our tour was at the pathology and medical building. Here, captives would be subjected to cruel experimentation to further the Nazi war effort and reinforce the depraved ideology which drove it. Many experiments were entirely unscientific and warped by the equally unscientific idea of Social Darwinism. A rare few, however, generated genuinely ‘good’ data.

Though what ought we do with such data? Some of it, particularly that on the treatment of hypothermia, could be used to save lives in the future. Is saving lives by the means of others’ killing and inflicting unthinkable suffering on innocent people corrupting our act of saving a life? Some may say so, but not I.

That’s because I think it’s ultimately the motive you have in your action – what you want to achieve – and the predictable results of that action that count. If you use this data with an intention to do good, to save lives, with the full knowledge of how it was generated, you have not done wrong. Rather, you have merely attempted to achieve the most moral outcome from what is available.

As Kristine Moe wrote, we should not let “let the inhumanity of such experiments blind us to the possibility that some ‘good’ may be salvaged from the ashes.”

If we can bring ourselves to recognise some ‘good’ to come from something as horrific as Nazism, can we bring ourselves to recognise some ‘good’ to come from Willy Moon?

Maybe. Except, there is one very important distinction here. By using data from Nazi experiments, we do not explicitly support Nazism. Listening to an artist’s song on YouTube or buying their works, however, does explicitly support them. And there, perhaps, lies our answer.

I, for one, will not be enjoying any more of Willy Moon’s songs, even if I vaguely ‘enjoyed’ one of them.

A little under the Zurich weather

A derelict alley near the University of Zurich.

A derelict alley near the University of Zurich.

Throwing myself around in a bed that wasn’t mine in vain attempts to find the spots least dampened by my feverish sweat was not what Zurich had promised me. Or, more rightly, what I had promised Zurich. Sickness stole more than it was owed. Like a gangster who didn’t get her tax when it was ‘due’, Sickness was extracting interest in Zurich for what I had only half-paid her in Geneva. A small amount of interest felt warranted – I had tried to cheat. But this wasn’t just interest; I was being made an example of. To whom, I don’t know … perhaps myself? When I arrived at the the university on Monday morning, I knew something was wrong. Barely able to stand, I excused myself repeatedly to get water or rid my lungs of the muck that made me breathe like Darth Vader. Incessant chimes echoed in the chamber of my mind like spiked flails clamouring into rotted wood. The sudden thunder of coughing disrupted even my most basic trains of thought and briefest moments of rest. Over and over the episodes of violent breathlessness came. Again and again I yearned for nothing but home. Medicine be damned, this sickness was killing more than my body. But home was too far. For now, medicine could be my only salve. I arrived at the university hospital sometime in the early morning. My patient information card was made nearly illegible by the liquid dripping from my hair and hands. I was admitted hastily. Tests. Semi-consciousness. Nodding to earnest attempts at English. Being poked and prodded and taken to this machine or that. Different doctors. Documents written in Swiss German. Bags of medicine with funny instructions ‘take before the meal’, ‘for couthing’. Out in the rain, disorientated and drugged, I somehow found my way back to the hostel. With European sirens from the ambulances moaning in the background, I felt like it would be more appropriate to go by Bourne, not Burns, had anyone asked my name in that moment. A private room was now not my blessing exclusively. While walls tend to block pathogens rather well, their ability to muffle the harrowing grate of forced air against constricted airways at three in the morning is less of a guarantee. Whether my neighbours slept through the nights any better than I was a mystery I was happy to leave unsolved. “How did you sleep?” the hostel manager asked when I checked out at the week’s end. “Well, thanks,” I replied. “As well as you could have, I guess.”

My little English adventure

Me outside Westminster station, London.

Me outside Westminster station, London.

After an unwelcoming immigration interview where I was compelled to detail my travel plans to a stranger to an extent not even my own mother cared about, I stepped into the invigoratingly cold tube station and headed straight for London Bridge.
Upon arriving at my hostel and stowing my bags in a locker, I mozied into the bar and requested the burger.
“Sorry, but we’re on the breakfast menu until 12.”
“It’s not even lunchtime?” I thought to myself.
“How long ‘till then?”
“A bit more than two hours.”
Time’s only residual meaning was embedded in place and how long until menus started, now.
“I’ll have the big breakfast,” I said, impressed with the price.
Except, what the familiarity of English culture had tricked me into believing in that exhausted moment was that the breakfast was only $3.50, not £3.50 (or about six or seven Australian dollars). Nonetheless, it still wasn’t expensive, and having room to move my elbows more than a few inches while using the cutlery was a welcome treat.
Equipped with advice from the Australian barkeep, I headed off to see the classical Westminster stuff. It was about as good as the pictures, really, though the morning sun beaming over a statue of Winston Churchill was more than a picture to witness – it was a moment.
Both camera and personal battery failing, I headed back to the hostel to check-in to my room above an old pub accessible via a stone alleyway. It could have easily been from Middle Earth. Collapsing on my bed (the first I’d felt or could call my own for days), I fell asleep with the camera charging and my moments uploading to the laptop.
I woke anxiously several hours later, remembering my plans to meet an old school friend downstairs for dinner. He was late, luckily, but also not unexpectedly. We bought a few beers before heading out into the cold London night.
He showed me St. Paul’s and recounted stories from here and there. Our life paths, once intertwined in an everyday context, had diverged wildly. I, the bookworm, had stayed in my natural habitat of Melbourne to study, whereas he had learnt different things, in different places, and in different ways. Being an ambitious and seasoned traveller, I trusted his experience and knowledge completely, which he was only too happy to share with me on my first expedition outside of Australia. His advice on travelling to my next destination: take the bus.
Perched above the morning traffic, looking out the front window of an iconic double-decker bus was the perfect way to make up for lost sightseeing during my afternoon nap the day before. As the housing got sparser, the rolling English countryside revealed itself behind a thin curtain of mist. My excitement for the magic of Oxford was growing.
The plan consisted of two parts: sightsee in the morning, and surprise Justin Oakley, my bioethics teacher and research supervisor, in the afternoon. Justin was due to give a talk on the ethics of pharmaceutical marketing and prescription ‘consumerism’ at a conference on virtue ethics at Oriel College.
In the morning I saw All Souls, the Bodleian Library, and the most complete remains of a dodo to be found anywhere in the world. About these attractions, I met a busker who played the tuba. I asked what his favourite memory of playing was.
“All of them are from my childhood,” he said, “I’ve recently had a heart attack. My mother and father passed away. Life deteriorates and breaks down, eventually.”
He went on to claim that he was not special and that this happens to everyone. He, like the dodo, was mortal. However, he said that music was special, as it fails to deteriorate. I think the same could be said for most abstract things or experiences. Nevertheless, how long until the remains of humans were the exhibit?
I rested my feet in a pub while pondering the question. I decided that, unlike the dodo, it was mostly up to us to determine the length of our species’ flourishing. It wouldn’t be easy, and there might be some impossibilities or random events which form insurmountable blockages to our passage through time. But that only means we best make the most of it. And so I was off to make the most of my time in Oxford.
Oriel’s inner sanctum was encased in a castle-like defence, though an open front door made entry easy for the intruder and reckless racketeer. I reported to the reception, however, for directions, and to my delight I met the very generous and competent conference organiser, who was happy to collude in my plot. She suggested I join the delegates for lunch in the main hall; I could spring my surprise there.
Interior of the main hall of Oriel College, Oxford, with the tables set for lunch.

Interior of the main hall of Oriel College, Oxford, with the tables set for lunch.

I entered the hall as if it were a cathedral of knowledge. Gazing upon the traditionalistic stained glass and portraits of past fellows, students, and provosts, and one of the Queen, I couldn’t help but be mesmerised by the history that surrounded me. After a few extra moments of indulging in the visual feast, I strategically positioned myself to one side of the main doors. As people passed me – engaged with one another – I could see them before being noticed.
Courtesy of my placement, Justin heard me greet him before he saw me. He was pleasantly surprised, and invited me to join him and a colleague from the Netherlands, who he had been chatting to on the way in.
Our contribution to the chorus of academic discourse which filled the hall was a discussion about moral education and the recent child euthanasia laws passed in Belgium. What would give impetus to the moral education of medical students? Was limiting euthanasia access to adults arbitrarily depriving children of relief from immense suffering?
What these walls would have heard throughout the years, I thought. Oriel is one of the oldest colleges in Oxford, and the oldest royal foundation.
Before long, we had to head off to the next talk. It was a keynote by British sociologist Andrew Sayer. He reminded me of a more softly-spoken Tony Benn, especially when he made a passing comment about Marxism. His talk was ultimately philosophically unrevealing, albeit entertaining. One point that caught my attention was on the so-called strategic survival personality, seen most prominently in the political elite during Question Time. Such a personality was one to never show weakness and never back down. They often thrive in cutthroat environments like politics, and traditional boarding schools were suggested as a probable breeding ground. I was instantly reminded of the late Christopher Hitchens, a fierce writer and political commentator who was educated in strict British boarding schools and later attended Oxford.
After a short break, Justin’s session was on. I had expected a small lecture theatre about half full, but found myself sitting at a long table with a dozen or so others in the style of an intimate Oxford tutorial. I’d heard some of Justin’s argument before, but thoroughly enjoyed hearing it again and in full. The subsequent questions and answers were rather enlightening, too. And it was at this moment that I realised: this was just like a class. In fact, it was a class. The only difference was that this was the first time Justin had taught this lesson, and in part he was still testing and developing it, figuring out what it ought to teach us. This, I thought, is where knowledge begins.
Another short break followed. Justin and I mazed through a labyrinth of ancient walkways, in search of the conference reception’s location and to enquire as to whether I could be included in the evening’s festivities. I was included, incredibly. For the most obvious time in my life, it was clear that relationships were powerful, and the old saying of who you know rang true. I’d come to Oxford unannounced, without knowing a soul, and here I was, given intimate access the very day of my arrival.
The conference organiser was also a gifted singer, and sang songs with a small choir above the dinning area before our meal. These walls heard some of the finest songs, and some of the finest conversation. (It’s a pity it couldn’t also taste the fine food and wine.) Incidentally, my evening conversation seemed to carry on from lunch, being also about moral education. This time I had the pleasure of hearing the perspective of a Japanese philosopher of education from Nagasaki.
Though I wished I could stay longer, I had travel plans for early the next morning. So, after dinner, I bid Justin and the others I’d met a fond farewell and returned late to my hostel.
My body clock unexpectedly woke me at four the next morning. As I couldn’t force myself to rest any longer, I resigned to catching up on social media and writing in the common room. As early as I could, I checked out and headed for the train station, booking tickets from Oxford to Salisbury and Salisbury to London.
Salisbury is a beautiful small town that I would’ve liked to explore more of. The cathedral alone boasts the oldest working clock and the best copy of the Magna Carta. But I wasn’t here for the history of Salisbury, truthfully. I was here for something much older.
Although Stonehenge is many kilometres inland and not located at a particularly high elevation, the wind hitting you upon alighting from the bus from town felt like it belonged to the edge of a pier on a stormy winter’s day. Recent wet weather meant most of the archaeologically-interesting grounds surrounding Stonehenge were closed, but visitors could still get very close to the main attraction. Imagining prehistoric societies bracing these elements for the sake of establishing this monument, and then actively using it in some way, was mystifying to say the least.
Stonehenge.

Stonehenge.

In London the next day, I saw the Churchill War Rooms, used by Churchill and senior military and political figures during the war. Built totally underground, you could feel the anxiety and seriousness in its construction. A specially-engineered gas mask sat by the head telephonist’s desk, which would allow her to continue working in the event of a chemical or biological attack. The Prime Minister had his own bedroom down there, though he apparently rarely slept in it. He also had exclusive access to what many thought was the only flushing toilet in the bunker – in fact, the ‘toilet’ door (which was always engaged) was the secret entrance to the codes room. Staff walked past it the entirety of the war, never knowing of its existence.
The National Gallery was next, where I witnessed originals by Claude, Monet, Van Gough, Titian, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and many more. I couldn’t help but witness the stolen history at the British Museum, too. Much is said of the Elgin Marbles (which are undoubtedly beautiful), but there are many more marvels robbed from their respective homelands. In the trophy room of colonialists, everyone has something new to treasure and something old to miss.
Now I was off to see a different type of room, one in which treasures were donated and combined together to affect unity and a greater good. It was the true purpose of this trip, but I had politely stolen a small holiday on the side (granted, I paid for the extension myself, so perhaps it wasn’t stolen at all – then, I wonder if colonialists would say something similar?).
Till Geneva.

A report from Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center, Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi.

When my effectively sleepless 14-hour incommodious torture at 30,000 feet had ended, I walked into an airport slightly smaller than I had expected to find that everything, everyone was different. But really, I was the one who was different.

The men wore kandoras, an ankle-length white dress. Although religiously-inspired (and, some may say, strongly recommended) I could be convinced that the kandora was actually the ideal dress for Emirati weather. It was invariably hot and invariably dry. I imagined it must feel like the pleasure of wearing a more formal dressing gown after a warm bath, except around town.

Once I’d collected my baggage and passed the curiously lax immigration checkpoint, I went looking for a cab. There were multiple ranks of different styled cars. Some looked rather exuberant, more chauffeur than cabbie, but between others there seemed no obvious difference. So, I asked a local which to take. He apologised, managing to convey that he did not speak English. However, in the midst of his attempts to convey this, he saw what appeared to be a man of South-East Asian appearance wearing a shirt and pants. Immediately he began pointing and saying, “Him, him.”

The man quickly attended to us, and spoke English very well. But how had the local known this man could speak English? Apparently it was appearance alone.

Expats from South-East Asia are the backbone of the service industry in Abu Dhabi (though the Emirate itself could do perfectly fine without such industry given its mammoth oil reserves). Most speak English rather well and most wear Western-style clothing.

Before approaching the taxi rank I’d been informed was for me, I asked the tourist information centre whether my three-quarter-length shorts and shirt were appropriate clothing for my visit. “It’s fine,” they said, “Your shorts cover your knees, so it’s fine.”

Fine for some places, that is.

I asked my cab driver to take me to Emirates Palace, an ultra-luxurious hotel which I had no intention of staying in, but had been told was worth a look. The opulence and grandeur of the Emirates is infamous, after all. At the Palace entrance my cab was stopped by security and told to turn around: pants only. Annoyed, I asked the driver to let me out and I took a few photos from the gate.

My map and a list of must-sees in hand, I began my self-guided tour of the lavish city. The walking made me feel the dry, Melbourne-like heat a little more intensely, but it also gave me the opportunity to see a lot more, and to stop and appreciate my surroundings when I had the inclination. However, in keeping with the grand scale of things, the roads (thus walks) were rather long.

Perhaps the most striking find on my journey was made relatively early. A short walk from the Palace entrance was a monolithic, propagandist billboard. The divine-like depiction of the now deceased Sheikh Zayed, former President of the United Arab Emirates, stood proudly facing a major road intersection. It must have been at least 30 metres high and wide, and was supported by a scaffolding of rusted metal at the rear. From the road, one could not see the rusting metal. Only by walking behind, examining it more closely, could one see what was really behind the man.

The other big industry that many expats from South-East Asia work in is construction and general labour. Two such builders walked by. I took their photo in front of the Sheikh billboard. Let them be in the front of the photo, I thought, not stowed away in the background.

Two builders in front of a billboard of Sheikh Zayed, Abu Dhabi.

Two builders in front of a billboard of Sheikh Zayed, Abu Dhabi.

Reverential portraits and images of Sheikh Zayed and his sons (the current rulers) were everywhere in Abu Dhabi. I really mean everywhere. Every cafe and every restaurant and probably not every but still far too many bathrooms. I’d rather an old, dead Sheikh not watch me while I piss, thanks.

One cab driver described to me how he used to dine in a cafe which had no portraits. When military serviceman visited and noticed, they did more than merely suggest that the shopkeep put some up. And he did so the very next morning, according to my driver.

After walking a little more, past some of the gargantuan grandeurs of the skyline – hotels, offices, homes – I came to the heritage village. I had wanted to visit the Qasr al-Hosn fort, the oldest building in Abu Dhabi and the original ruling place of the sheikh-of-the-day, however in typical Emirati fashion the fort was not enough – it had to be refurbished and extended both in and around the site to make it more grand. So I was at heritage village – a fakery, but a decent-enough looking one to visit nonetheless. Who knows, perhaps it was better than the real thing.

Before seeing the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (where I was let in with shorts), I tried some Arabic food. The restaurant had portraits.

Upon leaving, an old Emerati man watched me. His face told a story of a tolerated liberalism: I got the sense that some here despise the international hub the Emirates is becoming.

Let scientists be scientists

Thomas Edison experimenting in his laboratory c1920. Photograph from the US Library of Congress collection.

Thomas Edison experimenting in his laboratory c1920. Photograph from the US Library of Congress collection.

The job of the scientist is, first and foremost, to pursue science, not funding. Larry Marshall, the newly appointed head of CSIRO, may have started out in science, but you know he’s spent too many years in business when – in his first official communiqué – he claims that scientists have a ‘duty’ to start companies.

It would be too easy to simply list all of the lovely technologies and life-changing medical advancements basic research has given us, and ask, ‘Would you have liked to have gone without all of these?’

Instead, let’s acknowledge that industry can help fund some basic research, however an overemphasis on the commercialisation of research outcomes is fundamentally opposite to the nature and philosophy of science as a human endeavour.

Imagine a young research student in 1960s Japan. The lab head they are currently working for has assigned them the task of studying small, nocturnal jellyfish. When the jellyfish die and are crushed, they glow when exposed to water. It seems strange, perhaps even interesting, but could anyone have at that time reasonably predicted that the work of this research student would end up earning them a Nobel Prize? Osamu Shimomura, the student who did that work, could hardly have guessed so.

Shimomura helped discover aequorin and green fluorescent protein, which are what made the jellyfish he was studying glow. Isolating the genetic codes for these proteins has led to their widespread use in research, giving medical researchers the ability to observe biological activity at the molecular level and allowing engineers to develop advanced biosensors, among other things.

If Shimomura had a duty to start a company, how could he have sold his jellyfish experiment to a venture capitalist?

S: I want to study these glowing jellyfish. They’re really cool.
VC: What will you discover? How much money can we make from your discovery?
S: I don’t know.

And Shimomura can’t know, nor can anyone! That’s the fundamental nature of basic research and of science generally: to discover what we don’t yet know. Sure, we can sometimes reasonably guess, but we’re only guessing and we can barely do that in most instances of basic research, such as in Shimomura’s case.

Shimomura wouldn’t have been able to get his experiments off the ground if he was told he had a duty to make the outcomes of his experiments commercialisable. He’d have to do something completely different, and ultimately something that wasn’t basic research.

Since this problem of the unknown is common for almost all of basic research, the claim that scientists ought to start companies is essentially to say that they shouldn’t pursue basic research. Do we really wish for this? If we do, the ultimate goal and purpose of science is lost to an impatient sense of utility.

I say ‘impatient sense’ because basic research forms the foundation on which all utilisations of science rely upon. Those biosensors and the incredible detail of information which medical researchers have used to develop new treatments for disease are all – in part – courtesy to a research student in 1960s Japan methodically studying some obscure, nocturnal jellyfish.