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Ethics and the Responsibility of Science

Background Paper

Forum I   - Session 11


ICSU's Standing Committee on Responsibility
and Ethics in Science (SCRES)


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When Robert Hooke made his proposal for the Statutes of the Royal Society in 1663, he wrote:

The business and design of the Royal Society [is] to improve the knowledge of natural things, and all useful Arts, Manufactures, Mechanick practices, Engynes, and Inventions by Experiments, - (not meddling with Divinity, Metaphysics, Moralls, Politicks, Grammar, Rhetorick, or Logick).

We shall not dwell upon the question of how accurate that statement really was. Indeed, one could make a case for the claim that science and politics have always been closely related. But a closer look at the interfaces of science with economic and political powers today provides cause for concern. In certain areas the traditional labour sharing - science taking care of knowledge, industry of innovation, and politics of power - may be hard to make sense of.

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Science for policy is a hotly debated issue. Bodies like The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Whaling Commission (IWC) have the difficult task of providing scientific assessments and outlining their policy implications. Critics often question the autonomy of these bodies in regard to the political process. The typical problems related to science for policy touch upon some of the traditional ethos of science. Appointment to these bodies may be influenced by political expediency and visibility, to the detriment of scientific expertise. Acting within these bodies may require new communicative skills as the scientists become much more part of the public arena. The work agenda is typically set by the political agenda and this may compromise scientific quality. Are ethical virtues sacrificed for political influence?

Alliances with economic powers like industry are another hotly debated issue. Markets are arguably the strongest force to bring about changes in socio-economic developments. It is only since the turn of the last century that academia has more fully realised its potential to bring about technological innovation, and thereby influence markets. Most people seem to agree that this potential of science actually to stimulate markets is largely positive. However, the question is whether science has gone too far in this respect. Traditional institutions like the universities struggle with their new role as market actors. Some are deeply worried by what they perceive as an ever-increasing race for patents, outside industrial funding and appraisal of research. Some scholars are concerned about the increased demand for marketability of science, a concern that is echoed by Ziman: "Academic science is undergoing a cultural revolution. It is giving way to ‘post-academic science’, which may be so different sociologically and philosophically that it will produce a different type of knowledge".

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A growing number of scientists ask if science always goes where the money is. Implicit in this criticism is the question whether science neglects its responsibility towards civil society. Obviously, not all the goods a functioning society needs are goods that enter a market. Some are cultural, spiritual or aesthetic, and some provide intellectual dimensions for new social practices, or new worldviews. If science neglects its contribution to these areas then it neglects its responsibility towards civil society.

Even some scientists working in fields with large economic potentials voice sceptical warnings. They point for instance to difficulties in access to certain scientific information as one indicator. Privileged access to certain information provides competitive advantage. Thus secrecy seems a viable strategy. The competition on markets is reflected inside science itself, as competing groups of experts race towards the first marketable breakthrough. In a certain sense, the race of being first to obtain a given result was always more or less a part of science. But what may have changed is that this race is accompanied by large economic incentives. The net result may be, if the critics are right, that the rules for good scientific practice become eroded and overshadowed by the laws of the marketplace.

The traditional autonomy of science served as a safety vault for society: when there was evidence that a certain social, technological or economic development implied a danger of serious harm one could count on science to issue an early warning. Scientists were good "whistle-blowers". Do we risk loosing this quality?

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