Sheldon Krimsky

What are you most trying to accomplish in your work? 

To explore the normative dimensions and moral implications of science in its social context; to understand how financial conflicts of interest affect the outcome of science and to advocate for scientific integrity through accepted norms of behavior.

What do you think sets your work apart from the work of others in your field?

More than other investigators, I have immersed myself in many scientific disciplines including physics, genetics, toxicology, risk assessment, environmental policy, forensic DNA science and stem cells. I have written about the underpinnings of science within these disciplines and the entry points of values and ethics.

What or who inspired you to get into your field? Do you have any individuals or groups of people that you credit with helping you achieve the goals you set out to accomplish?

I have been inspired by public interest scientists, like Barry Commoner, Herbert Needleman and Henry Kendell (founder of the Union of Concerned Scientists),and philosophers who have brought their intellect into the public sphere, like Bertrand Russell, Jean Paul Sartre and John Dewey. And foremost I was inspired by my mentor at Boston University—Robert S. Cohen—who provided the model and inspiration of a curious and open-minded intellectual who showed that the mind and the heart could work together for achieving an ethical and socially just society.

What role has serendipity played in the turning points in your career? 

Perhaps the most serendipitous event that shaped my career was being chosen by the City Manager to serve the City of Cambridge in 1976 as a member of the Experimentation Review Board, which was given a mandate to assess the public health risks of pathbreaking research involving recombinant DNA (gene splicing across species), which had begun at Harvard and MIT. That experience exposed to molecular genetics which stimulated my inquiry into the social and ethical implications of genetic research. My research turned from the philosophy of physics to the philosophy of biology. The second turning point was my selection on the National Institutes of Health Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee which introduced me to federal policy making.

What have been the greatest challenges that you have encountered in your career?

Whenever I choose a new area of study and a new paper or book project, it generally requires my total immersion into a new field. The challenge is to gain mastery over the scientific and philosophical (ethical) literature of that field. One cannot be taken seriously without such mastery. It involves intense learning to overcome idiosyncratic nomenclature, methods, presuppositions and norms. Only then can I make a contribution.

Do you believe leaders and innovators have certain qualities that they all share? If so, what?

I have not studied the qualities of innovation broadly across fields. From the fields about which I am knowledgeable, I would say skepticism about accepted viewpoints, commitment to a set of values, willingness to admit mistakes, unwillingness to adapt to injustice, and a shared sense of responsibility for advancing human well being.

How would you most like to change the world through your work?

I will have made a contribution if I can show that honest, ethical and objective science is possible, consistent with, and essential to a democracy. The integrity of the social system we have created to produce knowledge is as important to our society as the integrity of our system of law, under the Constitution. If I can set the bar of scientific integrity to a higher level, it will set a stronger foundation for public acceptance of scientific knowledge and science-based policy decisions.

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