Vol. 22, No. 6
Ethical Guidelines for Science (ICSU-SCRES)
SCRES, the Standing Committee on Responsibility and Ethics in Science
recently established by the International Council of Scientific Unions
(ICSU), focuses part of its present activities on the possibility of
formulating international ethical guidelines regulating scientific research.
Ethical guidelines have been formulated to regulate activities within
various scientific disciplines, and some of these go beyond the national
perspective (e.g., the ban on human experimentation without informed
consent). Ethics in science has gained increasing relevance in the past
decades when the development of science has been very rapid, and traditional
values and familiar moral intuitions appear threatened by some discoveries,
as the heated debate around, for example, mammal cloning illustrates.
Understanding of this development is limited to a select minority, which
raises questions of how best to spread scientific education. The public
perception of science has deteriorated dramatically in recent decades,
and we need to develop an instrument to promote public trust in science.
Modern science and technology exert strong influence on the world's
development, a power that can be dangerous unless restrained by principles
or guidelines. Calls for international guidelines regulating scientific
research on a global front have become more frequent, for example, concerning
socioeconomic development, sustainability of natural resources, world
peace, quality of life, equity among nations, handling of scientific
data, or problems in cyberspace.
The question is: Given the plurality that reigns within ethics as a
result of different cultural backgrounds, political or financial systems,
religious or other ideologies, levels of development, socioeconomic
systems, etc., is it possible to find international norms that combine
broad acceptance with substance in their formulation? The institutions
of science may provide a context for eliciting normsthis pluralism
notwithstanding. Assuming that this convergence is, in principle, possible
and sufficiently realistic to be a worthwhile pursuit, in which scientific
contexts might such guidelines be desirable? A few have been mentioned,
but there are others.
The object under analysis would be a group of related concepts: codes
of conduct, guidelines, oaths, and pledges,
notably. The primary concept is the guideline or code. An oath or a
pledge makes appeal to a principle that must be universalizable, for
example, applicable to all individuals in relevantly similar circumstances.
This principle (or a cluster of them) constitutes the code or the guideline
that canbut need not be expressed in a ceremony where the
individual swears to follow its dictate. Oaths are, therefore, conceptually
secondary to codes. Some call for an oath for scientists to be developed,
because they feel that the ceremony might serve to make individuals
more aware of the ethical principles to which the oath (or the pledge)
would appeal. Others are worried that this practice can make ethics
seem optional, for an oath concerns only those who swear it. This situation
might perhaps be avoided if all members of a given group are obliged
to swear the oath in order to enter that "society of honor". The objection
has then been raised that this image is antiquated. The primary task
from SCRES's point of view is to analyze actual or possible codes and
guidelines. A discussion whether to express them in an oath or a pledge
may follow but cannot precede that task. It should be noted that any
pledge for science must be a part of a larger social-political dialogue.
The subjects concerned are the individual scientists, but also scientific
institutionsacademies, unions, associations, etc. When a code
is binding for a given group, it articulates a cooperative practice
for all the members of that group. This practice may relate to individual
moral qualities (such as honesty, conscientiousness, and integrity)
or to the group's social relationship (e.g., to the state, or to bodies
providing or offering financial support). (The group may assert social
duties, political neutrality, and incorruptible academic freedom, or
its codes may require a different approach). Generally, it is important
to distinguish between individual and communal perspectives. Clearly,
the individual scientist cannot be held responsible for any and all
applications of her or his research in a broader communal context. There
is an equilibrium to be found between individual and communal responsibility.
Furthermore, the individual scientist acts in a variety of roles that
need to be distinguished, for each carries different (not necessarily
compatible) responsibilities, and the relevant codes of conduct will
vary accordingly. In particular, we may note the difference between
the scientist qua researcher, author of reports, social consultant,
political tool or advisor, and advocate/witness.
Within a national perspective, the relationships between ethical codes
for science and, for example, educational strategies and laws are relevant
to establish. In international contexts, this exercise is equally important,
but considerably more difficult. Already within Europe there are profound
cultural disparities in the attitudes toward "acceptable" behavior in
science, and these differences appear to deepen when distinct continents
are compared. Nevertheless, there seems to be a need for international
agreements in many ethical issues, such as socioeconomic development,
sustainability of natural resources, world peace, quality of life, equity
among nations, handling of scientific data, or problems in cyberspace.
It is, therefore, worthwhile to investigate if we can find a "smallest
common denominator" that might form a foundation for international agreement.
In this context, it will be of interest to draw comparisons to the declaratory
tradition in international law and to the UN Charter.
Evers (Postbox 522 Sentrum, 0105 Oslo, Norway; Tel.: +47 23 31 83 17;
Fax: +47 23 31 83 01; E-mail: [email protected]),
Exceutive Director of the Standing Committee on Responsibility and Ethics
in Science (SCRES) recently established by the International Council
of Scientific Unions (ICSU), has contributed the article above, along
with a request for comments on it to be sent to her in English, French,
German, Spanish, Swedish, Danish, or Norwegian. A more complete description
of this new ICSU-SCRES project was presented as a background paper for
the World Science Conference held 26 June-1 July 1999 in Budapest, Hungary
and recently published in Science and Engineering Ethics 6, 131-142