Zabta Khan Shinwari: Ignoring Science is the most Unethical Attitude

30 October 2015

If world leaders are interested to alleviate poverty and provide affordable healthcare to all human beings, biotechnology can help reducing suffering, illness, hunger and poverty, believes Pakistani scientist Zabta Khan Shinwari, laureate of the 2015 UNESCO Avicenna Prize, which is awarded to him at UNESCO Headquarters, on 4 November, at 7.30 p.m., in Room IX.

But biotechnology can also have an adverse impact on the environment and the future of biodiversity, and according to this eminent specialist in modern plant biotechnology and ethnobotany, scientists are still not sufficiently aware of national and international obligations in terms of biosecurity. Interview with Zabta Khan Shinwari, conducted by Irina Zoubenko-Laplante and Jasmina Šopova (UNESCO).

How do you feel about having been designated as winner of the UNESCO Avicenna Prize for the Ethics in Science?

It is indeed an honour not only for me and my country but also for all those throughout the world who ought to work in the face of hostile environments, but yet never compromise in matters of principle. We cannot confront bioterrorism physically, but, through ethical education, we can strive for the requisite character-building of our future generations, who will be the flag bearers for peace, security and tranquility.

What are the main ethical challenges in biotechnology today?

The scope of ethics has a broader canvas in this century, from bioethics to applied ethics, from environmental and medical ethics to research ethics, etc. In biotechnology, there are many challenges. On one side, it has to play its role in reducing poverty and relieving human sufferings but at the same time, one has to consider possibility of its adverse impact on the environment and the future of biodiversity.

Scientific innovations have resulted in discovery of new drugs and diagnostic techniques, but at the same time, their mis-application can result in benefiting only a small segment of the society and may compromise on human rights. For example, new healthcare technologies have enabled surgeons to easily transplant human organs, but, consequently, the poor and marginalized communities are exploited and the organs business endangers lives.

With regard to medical ethics, new dimensions of the sanctity of human life, our power to end life, to enhance life, to interfere with life processes are concrete challenges that need to be addressed.

What are the main ethical concerns that scientists in general need to face today?

Firstly, I would refer to the obligation of scientists to honour the trust that their colleagues place in them. We, as scientists, have a responsibility to mentor the next generations who will build their work on the current research discoveries. Secondly, scientists have an obligation to themselves because an irresponsible conduct in research can make it impossible to achieve a goal and, in fact, makes them liable to any harmful outcome.

Scientists have also an obligation to act in ways that serve the public and to cause no harm. In this regard, I would like to point out that in this era where new technologies are emerging, pathogens are emerging and re-emerging, the laws and social norms can deviate from what is ethical. Scientists have to constantly examine their standards to ensure that they are reasonable and well-founded.

Scientists have to use a more teleological ethics which argues that the morality of an action depends on its outcome.

In a way, it requires double consideration: their intention is, on one hand, the advancement of science and its positive impact on the society, and the other, reporting of science inventions to peers and the society in such a way that no harm comes out of it neither today nor in future, neither accidently nor intentionally. Because of tremendous progress made in information technology, one has to be more responsible to be aware of ethical considerations of falsification, fabrications and plagiarisms.

Therefore, scientists have a responsibility to not only to carefully avoid and detect unforeseen or unintended events, but also to make aware other stakeholders, including politicians, aware of and more competent to avoid the threats stemming from dual use of science.

What the term “dual use” refers to?

The term "dual use" in science has multiple meanings: civilian and military use and/or good and bad use. As I have just pointed out, in the era of biotechnology, to declare that some action is right or wrong, sometimes depends on the outcome of the action. A researcher may undertake an activity which is for the good of human beings, according to his intentions, but someone else may misuse its outcome. Because the risks of such incidents are high, we need to be more judicious.

Because of the risk of a misuse of science, we as researchers must be aware of the rights of individuals and of populations and have a sense of responsibility to the wider world. We have to make attempts to define rules or guidelines to prevent harm – to avoid or minimize the dual use risks. We also need awareness in some fields which lack accurate, definite predictions of outcomes.


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Can dual use and biosecurity education in Pakistan be a way of promoting the ethics of science and technology?

Advanced technologies are prone to dangerous applications. As the "Green Revolution" gives way to the "Gene Revolution", we must adopt an attitude more and more cautious. That is why it is extremely important to raise this question the young generation of scientists around the world, including Pakistan.

We as scientists have an obligation to mentor the next generation of scientists to act responsibly not only towards humans but also vis-à-vis the ecosystem and environment.

Pakistan, being a nuclear power, is confronted with a lot of challenges in terms of biosecurity. Hence, we have to be more responsible while ensuring no harm to humanity through our labs or human resources. However, the surveys conducted so far have revealed that not only in Pakistan but in many other countries as well the scientists are not well aware of national and international obligations in terms of biosecurity.

How are you involved in the international “Dual Use Education Bio-engagement programme”?

My role has been to promote Responsible Conduct of Science (RCS). RCS is defined as “the practice of scientific exploration with reliability and integrity”. It involves the awareness and implementation of established professional and ethical norms in activities performed by the scientific community.

Raising awareness about dual use issues among scientific community is a principal element of educational oversight.  We have initiated numerous activities to raise knowledge among scientists about bioethics, bio-security and responsible scientific research conduct.

We did Gap Analyses in the first phase and then had targeted awareness raising programmes from students to young researchers, faculty and policy makers.

How could biotechnology reduce the existing inequalities within and among countries?

Certainly the idea that biotechnology is in favor of rich countries and multinationals, is widespread, because it is they who have access to expensive technologies and have a monopoly on germplasm, genetic material. Yet I believe that if the political will was at there, biotechnology could contribute efficiently to reduce suffering, disease, hunger and poverty around the world.

“Maximizing wellbeing and minimizing pain of humanity" – this is how I formulate the  mission of biotechnology research. And I believe that ignoring science is the most unethical attitude.

To adopt this technology on a large scale, we need to overcome the hurdles which are largely political in nature. We have to find common grounds among bioethicists, biotechnologists, political activists and NGOs, and other actors.

I have personally worked on abiotic stresses (such as drought, cold and excess of salt) and reported a gene family, i.e. "DREB", responsible for inducing tolerance to extreme abiotic stresses. The low income countries are confronted with harsh climatic conditions and use of this technology will help.

Biotechnology has not only the potential to improve agricultural productivity and its quality (healthier and more nutritious plant-origin food products) but also can cater new diagnostic tools as well as drugs for the so called "incurable diseases", the edible vaccine. This will help in reduction of hunger and poverty by stimulation of economic prosperity.

Thus, through this technology, not only novel germplasm can be provided to farmers but also it can help in strengthening the traditional healthcare system, for example, by enhancing efficacy of medicinal plants.

As a specialist of ethnobotany, what is your experience with the use of traditional knowledge on plants?

Ethnobotany is a multi-disciplinary science encompassing botany, anthropology, economics, and linguistics that studies the way in which a society relates to its environment and particularly to the plant world. These relationships can be social, economic, symbolic, religious, ritualistic, commercial, or artistic.

I have seen many sick people recovering by the use of indigenous medicinal plants or traditional knowledge-based treatment. I personally treat myself by using herbs, and have got good results from plants like Fagonia indica, Aloe vera, Rosa demacina, etc.


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When I was doing my masters, I travelled in the mountains to collect plants for my research. There was a stinging species, Urtica dioica, which when touched could make one feel like bitten by a scorpion. I did not know what to do, but a boy came and guided me to rub myself with another plant, Rumex hestatus, and I recovered quickly from those annoying feelings. Another incident occurred during my visit to the region of Kohistan, in the north of Pakistan, where I got food poising while staying in a tent in the mountains, with no medical facilities available around there. Fortunately, an old lady gave me an herb, a mixture of thyme and mint, and I recovered quickly. Since then, I have a feeling that literate does not necessarily means educated: that boy and lady, though illiterate, were more educated than me when it came to traditional knowledge.

You have made significant efforts to empower women and girls, including from the indigenous communities, to access the benefits of scientific knowledge. Could you share some of the examples?  

Indeed, I had many memorable events in life while trying to promote gender equality and empowering women to ask for their rights. In 2004, when I took over as Vice Chancellor of Kohat University of Science and Technology, the population of female students on the campus was only 6%.

I endeavoured to extend education to the marginalized communities, in particular women. It was difficult, but I applied a multi-pronged strategy, namely  recruited female staff in the University offices so that female students could easily discuss their academic and personal issues on the campus.  Previously, it was difficult for the girl students to discuss and solicit help and advice regarding specific diseases of women, they were even unable to share indigenous knowledge and cures relevant to such diseases. On the other hand, I reduced the University fees for female students drastically, for the girl students who had passed their entrance exams.

I entrusted a female postgraduate student to do research on specific issues related to women's health in the Swat Valley, where she originated from. Before including her into our project on the ground, it was impossible to carry out an investigation because women were reluctant to answer our questions. With the help of our young student, they felt comfortable, the investigation went very well, and we were able to publish our results.

This strategy has proven to be very effective: in two years, enrollment of female students in the university rose to 20%.

Would you like to transmit a message to the young scientists of the world?

In short, I would put my message like this: Nothing is impossible in this world. The practice of science can bring you a lot of satisfaction and minimize suffering of the world, provided that your conduct is responsible. This is the best way for you to be part of the solution, instead of being a part of the problem.