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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)


Science, Welfare and Equity

The world is characterised by a split between the North and the South. Not only material wealth, but education, information and many other goods are unevenly distributed between these spheres. A statement against this global inequity is issued in the Declaration of Guadalajara:

In the name of the independence of science and of its calling to the genuine service to the whole of humanity, we reject scientific research subservient to the designs and interests of the powerful. The greatest ill of humanity is the increasingly growing inequality among peoples. While undernourishment is still assailing certain regions of our planet, bulimia and anorexia cause suffering to people in other regions; while life expectancy in Africa is only fifty-five years, in Europe it is above seventy-five years. We believe that the overcoming of these and all the other inequalities must constitute the top priority of scientific work and of the funds destined to it.

Whether or not we agree with this call for justice, and the view that science should be helpful to achieve it, we must admit that it is not a universally endorsed by decision-makers. If it were, the sustainable biosphere would most likely seem considerably less remote, and the social inequalities be far less tragic.

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What social justice implies is, however, subject to quite different interpretations. The substance of 'social responsibility' and ‘justice’ will vary profoundly depending on what type of society we talk about. Cultural values influence how we assess responsibility. The concept 'justice' is very differently conceived or defined in, say, the egalitarian democracy as opposed to the 'democrature', or in the neoliberal capitalist society as compared to the communist state. It is not simply the case on all accounts that one society is just whereas another is not just, or less so, but rather that they have different views on what justice is. The definitions of justice vary, politically as well as philosophically.

Numerous scientists today demand that science should strive not only to balance this inequity but to achieve a sustainable biosphere. Equal distribution of benefits are paramount, not least in environmental terms, as Lubchenco points out:

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The consequences of environmental degradation are often borne disproportionately by racially and economically disadvantaged groups. Wealthier individuals or countries can afford to buy bottled water, move away from degraded and contaminated sites, access information about alternative choices, influence the political process, cope with environmental disasters, buy better food, and purchase quality medical services and treatments.

The consequences of all degradation are borne disproportionately by disadvantaged groups. There is no doubt that the scientific community could contribute greatly to meeting these challenges.

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