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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)


Scientific Uncertainty                                                                  backtop_meet.gif (1986 bytes)

Scientific knowledge is typically organised in theories covering a wide variety of phenomena. In order to arrive at insights about generalised basic phenomena scientists employ processes of idealisation and abstraction, both in its conceptual basis and in the data. The typical complexity of singular phenomena necessitates simplifications. In many areas, e.g. environmental science, we deal with highly complex systems. This means that science often faces high system uncertainties coupled with high decision stakes (e.g. ecological factors). This provides for new challenges with regard to ethical issues. There are two main problems. The first relates to the methodological choices. Alternative approaches often yield different outcomes, and may reflect implicit conflicting values. The scientific adequacy should not be compromised by these implicit values. The second problem relates to the presentation. For a decision-maker the uncertainties are at least as valuable as the specific insights that are gained. It is therefore of vital importance that relevant uncertainties are communicated in a way which reflect their importance in the decision-making process. But scientists typically have little training in making visible those things they do not know, or that might turn out otherwise than predicted. To the extent that science fails to communicate relevant uncertainties it fails to provide trustworthy information.

Risk (in a non-technical sense) is a notion closely related to uncertainty. In performing risk studies one has to make methodological choices, sometimes related to alternative conceptions of the very notion of risk. It does e.g. make a difference if we treat industrial risks in the framework of the technical system itself (e.g. by designing "fault-trees"), or if we include human agency (based on "risk-perceptions") and perhaps the cultural background as well ("safety-cultures"). That these different conceptions reflect basic value choices often becomes apparent in their implications for legal questions of responsibility and liability.

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Managing risks involves further problems. What is regarded as "acceptable risk" (in a world where 0-risk is impossible) is ultimately a question of values. The (unequal) distribution of risks within societies raises traditional ethical concerns of fairness and integrity. Similar considerations apply to the distribution of risks among different generations. They serve to justify a precautionary strategy in those areas that may be vital for the future generations. One such strategy in regard to new knowledge and technology may be to delay the practical uses thus providing time for more comprehensive assessments.

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This is not the place to suggest specific remedies of the problems above. Yet one could at least point to some possible measures which may be worth further discussion. In particular: strengthening ethics in science education; establishing national bodies for ethics of science; or creating new fora for dialogue with the public.

We recommend that ethics in scientific education be strengthened. The ethical responsibility of the scientific community is ultimately borne by the individual scientists. It is she or he who decides how and whether to pursue a given line of research, what to do with the information obtained, and so on. This is not to say that the individual scientist will be fully responsible for, say, any applications of her/his results, many of which (s)he may have no power to influence, but that the ethical awareness of the individual scientist is of utmost importance. Ethical awareness is not just a matter of knowing what one considers morally adequate, but to be able to foresee and analyse elaborately different views on moral adequacy in various contexts, ultimately to form an informed opinion against that background. Ethics is more than an aspect of upbringing, it is a subject that requires studies for efficient use.

We recommend the establishment of independent national bodies for ethics in science. These need members who are competent both in science and in ethics, lest they become dilettantes of scant use. Given this competence, national ethics committees can offer important advise to deal with the often conceptually intricate and emotionally complex ethical problems in science. Such bodies may fill the vacuum that can occur when none of the parties involved regard ethics as their special field of competence. When called for, they can also help formulate codes and guidelines. Typically such bodies will operate on the basis of consensus.

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We recommend the adoption of international guidelines to govern all strands of science and research. General guidelines, such as The Uppsala Code of Ethics for Scientists initiated by the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, should be considered as a basis for drafting international guidelines.

We recommend that long-term science policies should be applied. These would seriously consider the possibility of slowing down research in certain problematic areas. With scientific development, new areas hitherto thought of as beyond the reach of human intervention and cognition are uncovered. Often the new knowledge gives cause for concern. Sometimes there is time to wait before it is spread or put to practical use; a strategy that is consistent with a precautionary approach.

We recommend maintaining an open dialogue with the general public. This may increase the general understanding of scientific issues, improve the public perception of science, and create trust in the integrity of scientists. When values are at stake, scientists are no privileged party in the public debate. Transfers of scientific authority to ethics are illegitimate. Scientists are a part of civil society and can offer important insights, but they must ultimately respect and recognise other authorities, alternative values and worldviews.

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