Texas Tech University

Frankenstein and other Science Fiction: Responsible Research Teaching Tools

I attended a conference a couple months ago on Professional Ethics sponsored by the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE). There was a wonderful presentation by a professor who is utilizing the classic horror novel "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley as a tool for teaching responsible research and ethics to his students. Specifically, Dr. William Gannon has been utilizing the novel to explain the intricacies involved in the protection of human research subjects and has published what would have been an Institutional Review Board (IRB) protocol for Dr. Frankenstein's research on bringing life to non-living human tissue (Harrison & Gannon, 2014). The presentation and the publication were both humorous and thought provoking which is likely why the teaching strategy has been so effective at getting students to comprehend the need for and subtleties of the ethics associated with utilizing human research subjects. However, the resulting discussion that was stimulated from his presentation seemed to address how the novel "Frankenstein" could be applied for many topics associated with responsible research conduct. I have mentioned my love of science fiction in my previous contributions to the Scholarly Messenger. So, it should come as no surprise that the presentation and discussion prompted some thoughts regarding the historic role that science fiction has played in educating the general public as well as researchers on responsible research.

Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" was originally published almost 200 years ago, yet it contains a strong warning that scholarly passion for research and discovery must be tempered by a consideration of the responsibilities associated with discovery. Now, to be clear, I'm not saying that real world scientists are synonymous with Dr. Frankenstein. Nor did Dr. Gannon make that assertion when he presented at the APPE conference. Furthermore, I cannot speak for all scholars since relatively speaking I have only met a few. However, when I read "Frankenstein", I recognized some similarities between the character, Victor Frankenstein, and some of my colleagues, specifically in their passion for discovery. Most of us have known colleagues who live for their research. Many academics have an extraordinary level of commitment to their discipline and make admirable contributions to their field. The passion for discovery often drives academics to work 16 hour days, 7 days a week, and for them the thought of working a mere 40 hour week seems frivolous.

So, yes, I think that many scholars model the passion that is described in Mary Shelley's classic novel. However, I think that the modern academic world has learned a great deal from the warnings provided by classic science fiction as well as from the sins of our academic ancestors. We are passionate about how our discoveries can be utilized to benefit society but our training makes us aware that many discoveries can also be purposely utilized to do harm. We continue to struggle with how to regulate information and technology so that we can continue to improve the world but prevent technological catastrophes. Mary Shelley created the character Victor Frankenstein as a scholar that blindly pursued his passion with little consideration for outcome. In contrast, modern researchers spend a great deal of time contemplating the potential for misuse of discoveries. We do not always agree on how to regulate our methods, supplies and information, but I've never met a scholar who was blind to the potential for misuse. In other words, modern scholars model the passion and dedication written by Mary Shelley but they are very aware of their responsibilities. That said, I think the novel is a great teaching tool for encouraging students to incorporate a regular consideration of responsibility into their daily research activities.

Another science fiction tool that is often utilized by academics, such as myself is the element of dark humor related to the image of the mad scientist. Throughout graduate school I posted a "Far Side" comic next to my desk that portrayed a classroom where the students were required to master their mad scientist laugh. Since graduate school, I have witnessed numerous "Far Side" comics utilized in scientific presentations to successfully insert levity into a data intense seminar. As such, I feel safe in assuming that I am not the only scholar who is a fan of Gary Larson and his sometimes dark humor related to the world of science. So, why do researchers embrace this dark humor? Contrary to any assertion that this dark humor stems from a desire to dismiss real concerns associated with science, in my opinion, our laughter empowers us to confront elements of our day-to-day studies and research activities that can be a bit unsettling or even frightening. We are aware that many research endeavors have the potential for both positive and negative application. Thus, they can be used for both good and evil. As such, we do not laugh because we are dismissive of the potential for negative application, nor do we laugh because we embrace that potential. Rather, laughter associated with dark humor empowers us to address that negative potential and work toward a system that maximizes beneficial application of discovery while minimizing any potential harm. Dark humor is another powerful teaching tool that can be used to empower students to address the sometimes frightening reality of discovery, especially when their work has dual-use application.

Many of the warnings that are delivered by science fiction address the social responsibility of research and more specifically dual-use application of research. Dual-use refers to research that can be used to benefit society but also has the potential to do great harm. Currently there are many areas of science and technology that are evolving very quickly. As such, their development is far ahead of any laws that could be utilized to regulate their use and minimize their potential to do harm. In one way, it is very exciting that scientific insight and creativity remains far ahead of the bureaucracy that would serve to control it. It thrills me that much like the world of science fiction, creativity in the academic world is unpredictable and thus, not readily controlled. On the other hand, because discovery with dual-use can readily be misused by persons seeking to do harm, it can be unsettling to see research publically shared. Furthermore, a brief look at our news headlines readily reveals too many people that would utilize unregulated technology to do harm. As academics it is difficult to reconcile our endorsement regarding the free sharing of ideas with our recognition that many discoveries have the potential for harm. However, if we let our fear of misuse limit discovery, we will fail to move forward with our research.

As such, just as science fiction provides warnings for potential abuses of science, it also provides an imaginary guide toward an optimistic future for science and technology through genres like Star Trek. In this type of science fiction, fictional cultures find their way through a technological infancy and create a society that largely utilizes technology to serve humanity. Although these stories provide us with optimistic imagery, unfortunately there is little input regarding how these fictional societies accomplished their goals. The reason for this is obvious, as we continue to struggle with our technological infancy, there is no ready path to take us from our current dilemmas to the utopian world that we hope that technology will provide. That being said, my optimistic side chooses to believe that if we continue to dream it, we can accomplish it. After all, 50 years ago when the original Star Trek series was televised, no one would have imagined that our current cell phone technology would surpass the imaginings of the Star Trek creators. The teaching tools that science fiction provides are not only warnings of what not to do, they can serve as inspiration to create paths and practices that promote the positive application of science.

Unfortunately, science fiction also has dual-use and thus, not all messages provided by science fiction are beneficial to science. One of the overarching negative themes often embraced by the general public is that scientists cannot be trusted because there are no checks and balances on the decisions and behavior of scientists. However, as we know, that is not true. In reality there is considerable oversight regarding the decisions of scholars in the forms of peer review of manuscripts and grants, human and animal protocol approval, safety and conflict of interest oversight, restrictions on space and access to research equipment and supplies as well as the high cost of that space and equipment. Furthermore, there is the most personal and effective form of oversight that naturally results from colleagues and collaborators who share our projects and limited research space. Although science fiction provides us with some great tools that can be utilized for teaching responsibility, there is the unfortunate side effect that it also contributes inaccurate propaganda that needs to be corrected. Therefore as a teaching tool, science fiction has both positive and negative applications. However, the inaccurate propaganda can also be useful to remind students about the importance of research oversight.

Even with the limitation that science fiction contributes inaccurate propaganda into the general public's perception of the world of science, I think that historically and currently, it contributes to an ongoing dialogue regarding the role of science and technology in our evolving societies. As long as the conversations persist, I will remain optimistic regarding the research agendas and the outcomes of our discoveries. Furthermore, I will continue to utilize the many responsible research teaching tools that the world of science fiction has provided us.