Codes of Conduct - Background

As a follow-up to the 1999 World Conference on Science, the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held two meetings, in September 1999 and February 2001. The purpose of these meetings was to generate broader awareness on the issues associated with an oath for scientists and to the possibility of adapting the Hippocratic oath to encompass all scientific disciplines. Noting that the general public is increasingly aware of the power of science to both create and destroy life, the Committee has been considering whether an oath for scientists, together with a vigorous debate on these issues, is desirable or even necessary.

In the meantime, and as a follow-up to the 1999 World Conference on Science and of the decisions of UNESCO General Conference, ICSU issued in 2001 its "Standards for Ethics and Responsibility in Science – an Empirical Study" [PDF, 59 KB]. This document analyses a number of existing standards for ethics and responsibility in science. The study is supplemented by an extensive background document: "Standards for Ethics and responsibility in Science: an analysis and evaluation of their content, background and function" [PDF, 638 KB]. These documents, intended as starting point for further discussions in the scientific community, aim at laying proper ground for substantial inquiries and normative discussions, with a view to undertake appropriate action in the field.

As these studies make clear, ethical standards for science must be formulated with great care and integrity. Asking scientists to be socially responsible, for instance, requires the study of ethics to be of an integral part of their education and training, with the purpose of enhancing future scientists’ ethical competence. This is essential in determining where the main ethical differences versus similarities lie, thus addressing possible conflicts.

ICSU research, which takes into account 115 ethical standards for science (39 international and 76 national), shows an exponential increase of the number of standards over the years, from mere 6 existing before the 1970s to more than 40 being issued during the last five years. This again is an obvious sign of the fact that the issue has become a burning one.

An interesting example is a Code of Conduct for Social Science Research [PDF, 74 KB] that has been developed in the 1990s by UNESCO. It has been adopted by the MOST program and used in all networks. Another example is the work of FAO to draft a code of conduct on biotechnology.

On 11 September 2001, the terrorist attack against the United States of America caused the international community to focus on the issue of terrorism with renewed intensity, thus adding a specific anti-terrorist concern to the science ethics agenda, as it was the case at the end of World War II for the use of nuclear weapons and its dreadful consequences.

As a first response, in October 2001, the UN Secretary-General established a Policy Working Group on the United Nations and Terrorism. Its purpose has been to identify the longer-term implications and broad policy dimensions of terrorism for the United Nations, and to formulate recommendations regarding the steps that the United Nations system might take to address the issue. In doing so, the Policy Working Group was specifically requested to consider terrorist acts as a threat not simply to human security, but to the very principles and values of the United Nations Charter, thus calling for a coherent and coordinated response by the organizations of the UN system as a whole.

In 2002, the Working Group transmitted its Report to the UN Secretary-General, including 31 Recommendations. Recommendation 21 is of particular relevance to the issue of science ethics:

    "Relevant United Nations offices should be tasked with producing proposals to reinforce ethical norms, and the creation of codes of conduct for scientists, through international and national scientific societies and institutions that teach sciences or engineering skills related to weapons technologies, should be encouraged. Such codes of conduct would aim to prevent the involvement of defense scientists or technical experts in terrorist activities and restrict public access to knowledge and expertise on the development, production, stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction or related technologies."

The UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council endorsed the Report and its Recommendations, transmitting it to all the Organizations and Specialized Agencies of the United Nations System.

At the invitation of the Director-General of UNESCO, a UN Inter-Agency Consultative Meeting was held at UNESCO HQs [PDF, 26 KB] in Paris, on 26 February 2003, specifically to discuss Recommendations 10 (focused on education, tolerance and respect of human dignity) and 21 of the Report.

One of the outcomes of this UN Inter-Agency meeting was a general recommendation towards "encouraging ethical codes of conduct for scientists and engineers" and "promoting ethics of science education and awareness". The ethical task given by the World Conference on Science to COMEST and ICSU was recalled and reinforced. One of the final recommendations of this meeting is that "existing relevant bodies such as COMEST could in particular play a decisive role in fostering a continued dialogue on education and ethics of science", also recommending the "specific involvement of the COMEST together with ICSU" in the field of the "responsibility of scientists".

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