Background information

During the 32nd UNESCO General Conference (2003), Member States expressed the need to initiate and support teaching programs in ethics, not only in bioethics but in all scientific and professional education. On the basis of these recommendations and statements, UNESCO initiated the Ethics Education Programme in 2004.

In 1997, the 29th General Conference of UNESCO adopted the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. Article 20 of this Declaration underlines the need for the promotion of education in bioethics.

The World Conference on Science in its Declaration on Science and the use of scientific knowledge (1999, PDF) adopted a wider perspective, stating that science curricula should include science ethics. In its Framework for Action it emphasized that “Ethics and responsibility of science should be an integral part of the education and training of all scientists. It is important to instill in students a positive attitude towards reflection, alertness and awareness of the ethical dilemmas they may encounter in their professional life”. The Conference added that UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) has a special responsibility to follow up on this issue. While the International Bioethics Committee is focused on the area of bioethics, COMEST, established in 1998, covers all other areas of applied ethics in relation to science and technology.

In 2003, COMEST published its report The teaching of ethics. The first recommendation in the report encourages universities and other institutions of higher education to establish ethics teaching at three levels:

  • elementary ethics courses for all students;
  • more advanced courses; and
  • a course that leads to a PhD in ethics.

Read the report ... [PDF, 2.7 MB]

It is also recommended that UNESCO develops courses in ethics, supports ethics teaching in developing countries, establishes fellowships and UNESCO Chairs, and institutes a price for the best teaching program in ethics. Finally it is proposed that COMEST establishes a board of experts in ethics, that could for example evaluate proposals for teaching programs, develop a certification system for such programs and evaluate UNESCO Chairs.

The importance of ethics education was further stressed in the recently adopted Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005). Article 23 of this Declaration encourages States to foster bioethics education and training at all levels and to encourage the dissemination of programmes. Ethics education is an effective and attractive way to apply the provisions of the Declaration.

Back to top