Chemistry International
Vol. 22, No. 6, November 2000

2000, Vol. 22
No. 6 (November)
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Chemistry International
Vol. 22, No. 6
November 2000

 

Formulating International Ethical Guidelines for Science (ICSU-SCRES)


More about SCRES
Responsibility and Ethics in Science
Professional Ethics Report
Ethical issues from World Conference on Science

SCRES, the Standing Committee on Responsibility and Ethics in Science recently established by the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), focuses part of its present activities on the possibility of formulating international ethical guidelines regulating scientific research. Ethical guidelines have been formulated to regulate activities within various scientific disciplines, and some of these go beyond the national perspective (e.g., the ban on human experimentation without informed consent). Ethics in science has gained increasing relevance in the past decades when the development of science has been very rapid, and traditional values and familiar moral intuitions appear threatened by some discoveries, as the heated debate around, for example, mammal cloning illustrates. Understanding of this development is limited to a select minority, which raises questions of how best to spread scientific education. The public perception of science has deteriorated dramatically in recent decades, and we need to develop an instrument to promote public trust in science. Modern science and technology exert strong influence on the world's development, a power that can be dangerous unless restrained by principles or guidelines. Calls for international guidelines regulating scientific research on a global front have become more frequent, for example, concerning socioeconomic development, sustainability of natural resources, world peace, quality of life, equity among nations, handling of scientific data, or problems in cyberspace.

The question is: Given the plurality that reigns within ethics as a result of different cultural backgrounds, political or financial systems, religious or other ideologies, levels of development, socioeconomic systems, etc., is it possible to find international norms that combine broad acceptance with substance in their formulation? The institutions of science may provide a context for eliciting norms—this pluralism notwithstanding. Assuming that this convergence is, in principle, possible and sufficiently realistic to be a worthwhile pursuit, in which scientific contexts might such guidelines be desirable? A few have been mentioned, but there are others.

The object under analysis would be a group of related concepts: codes of conduct, guidelines, oaths, and pledges, notably. The primary concept is the guideline or code. An oath or a pledge makes appeal to a principle that must be universalizable, for example, applicable to all individuals in relevantly similar circumstances. This principle (or a cluster of them) constitutes the code or the guideline that can–but need not– be expressed in a ceremony where the individual swears to follow its dictate. Oaths are, therefore, conceptually secondary to codes. Some call for an oath for scientists to be developed, because they feel that the ceremony might serve to make individuals more aware of the ethical principles to which the oath (or the pledge) would appeal. Others are worried that this practice can make ethics seem optional, for an oath concerns only those who swear it. This situation might perhaps be avoided if all members of a given group are obliged to swear the oath in order to enter that "society of honor". The objection has then been raised that this image is antiquated. The primary task from SCRES's point of view is to analyze actual or possible codes and guidelines. A discussion whether to express them in an oath or a pledge may follow but cannot precede that task. It should be noted that any pledge for science must be a part of a larger social-political dialogue.

The subjects concerned are the individual scientists, but also scientific institutions–academies, unions, associations, etc. When a code is binding for a given group, it articulates a cooperative practice for all the members of that group. This practice may relate to individual moral qualities (such as honesty, conscientiousness, and integrity) or to the group's social relationship (e.g., to the state, or to bodies providing or offering financial support). (The group may assert social duties, political neutrality, and incorruptible academic freedom, or its codes may require a different approach). Generally, it is important to distinguish between individual and communal perspectives. Clearly, the individual scientist cannot be held responsible for any and all applications of her or his research in a broader communal context. There is an equilibrium to be found between individual and communal responsibility. Furthermore, the individual scientist acts in a variety of roles that need to be distinguished, for each carries different (not necessarily compatible) responsibilities, and the relevant codes of conduct will vary accordingly. In particular, we may note the difference between the scientist qua researcher, author of reports, social consultant, political tool or advisor, and advocate/witness.

Within a national perspective, the relationships between ethical codes for science and, for example, educational strategies and laws are relevant to establish. In international contexts, this exercise is equally important, but considerably more difficult. Already within Europe there are profound cultural disparities in the attitudes toward "acceptable" behavior in science, and these differences appear to deepen when distinct continents are compared. Nevertheless, there seems to be a need for international agreements in many ethical issues, such as socioeconomic development, sustainability of natural resources, world peace, quality of life, equity among nations, handling of scientific data, or problems in cyberspace. It is, therefore, worthwhile to investigate if we can find a "smallest common denominator" that might form a foundation for international agreement. In this context, it will be of interest to draw comparisons to the declaratory tradition in international law and to the UN Charter.

 

Dr. Kathinka Evers (Postbox 522 Sentrum, 0105 Oslo, Norway; Tel.: +47 23 31 83 17; Fax: +47 23 31 83 01; E-mail: evers@online.no), Exceutive Director of the Standing Committee on Responsibility and Ethics in Science (SCRES) recently established by the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), has contributed the article above, along with a request for comments on it to be sent to her in English, French, German, Spanish, Swedish, Danish, or Norwegian. A more complete description of this new ICSU-SCRES project was presented as a background paper for the World Science Conference held 26 June-1 July 1999 in Budapest, Hungary and recently published in Science and Engineering Ethics 6, 131-142 (2000).

 

 

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