Purdue Pugwash Conference tackles social issues, ethics in science


In 1955, famed scientists Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and others decreed that scientists must consider the social implications of their work.

The effort was born from the development of the hydrogen bomb. Russell and Einstein worried that while a major scientific achievement, the weapon would have disastrous, horrifying effects on the planet. An ethical and social responsibility should be considered in every scientific achievement.

These scientists convened two years later in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, Canada, to discuss similar critical issues in their respective fields. The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs was born.

Almost 60 years later, the Pugwash Conferences are still being held. The Pugwash organization earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 1995, just a few years after the Purdue University Pugwash chapter was first called to order. The student-run organization grew in strength and started to host its own regional conference annually in 2006. The 2014 event is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. April 4 and 8:30 a.m. April 5 at Stewart Center. Purdue alumna Nancy Lilly, vice president of marketing and emerging markets at Eli Lilly and Company, will serve as keynote speaker. She will be presenting on emerging trends in pharmaceuticals & its benefits for society.

While the Cold War helped initiate the first Pugwash effort, science today would boggle the minds of most of those original Pugwash scientists. What would old Einstein’s concerns of 2014 be?

“I think if he was here today,” said Rachel Svetanoff, a Chemistry senior and president of the Purdue Pugwash chapter, “he’d pause, stare at us for a moment, and say, ‘Here we are living in a world where the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious, and everyone is concerned with finding old solutions. Why not create them instead?”

Pugwash 2013 program cover
The program cover of the 2013 Purdue Pugwash Conference

Svetanoff believes the importance of ethical and social responsibilities are more important than ever. As technology and science discoveries advance, so must the concerns.

In her chemistry courses, classmates and professors talk about hot-button issues that are Pugwash-worthy. Svetanoff said falsification of data and plagiarism occur in her field today -- from the classroom to the industry level.

“It all pertains to social impacts on society in science and technology, whether it relates to global security, space and society, access to information, or epidemiology.” 

Pugwash issues are sometimes ripped from the headlines. Nuclear proliferation was a major theme at the 2013 event due to the North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons and ongoing mass destruction threats in the Middle East.

The 60th international Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, “Dialogue, Disarmament, and Regional and Global Security” took place in Istanbul, Turkey, in November.

The Pugwash Conference is open to all students, faculty, staff and community. Svetanoff was Purdue Pugwash director of public relations for 2013. The Valparaiso, Ind., native was elected as a national Student Pugwash USA board member in January. Svetanoff said the conference is at its best when it raises issues and discussions. Sometimes attendees have differing opinions but the sharing of ideas and issues is what Pugwash is all about. Some speakers give traditional lectures while others use their time to lead interactive workshops. Either way, attendees raise a lot of questions.

“Last year, I was surprised how many questions were asked, “there would be breakout sessions with the panelists in speakers. In 2012, we had a biotechnology theme where we had two speakers that had opposing views and each had a discussion from their perspective.”

Besides Lilly, the 2014 conference already has eight speakers scheduled to host talks on their respective fields. More will be added soon:

  • Dr. David Sanders, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Purdue
  • Ronald Bartek, President/Director/Co-Founder of Friedreich's Ataxia Research Alliance

  • Dr. Ulrike Dydak, Associate Professor of Health Sciences at Purdue
  • Dr. Ka He, MPH, ScD, Chair and Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Indiana University
  • Dr. Jason Cannon, Assistant Professor of Health Sciences and Toxicology at Purdue
  • Brittany M. Gross, MPH
Viral Hepatitis Prevention Coordinator at the Indiana State Department of Health
  • Dr. Jeffery Fisher, Director, Center for Health, Intervention, and Prevention (CHIP), 
Board of Trustees, Distinguished Professor of Psychology
, University of Connecticut

  • Dr. S. Patrick Kachur, MPH, FACPM
, Chief of Center for Disease and Control’s Malaria Branch

Dr. Jon Harbor, professor of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at Purdue, has attended several Pugwash Conferences due to the value in “rich discussion and diverse perspectives that are provided by the great mix of highly engaged people who attend from campus and the community.”

“Ethics and social issues in science,” Harbor added, “are critically important as we consider the use and potential impacts of new scientific advances from global to the local scales. Informed and open debate, such as occurs at the Pugwash conference, is an invaluable way to learn about and advance these key societal issues.”   

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