Ethics and the Responsibility of Science

Background Paper

Forum I   - Session 11


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


Table of contents


Science and technology are major forces of socio-economic change. They empower humankind to change its social and natural environment at a breathtaking speed. As an integral part of this process, science carries serious responsibility. Is it prepared to take it?

                 "Scientific knowledge", says Lubchenco, "is urgently needed to provide the understanding for individuals and institutions to make informed policy and management decisions and to provide the basis for new technologies". However, she questions whether the scientific enterprise:

…is prepared for the…crucial and daunting challenges that lie in our immediate future. The answer that I must give is "no". I assert that the immediate and real challenges facing us have not been fully appreciated nor properly acknowledged by the community of scientists whose responsibility it is, and will be, to meet them.

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In view of the problems that we face today, there is ample cause for concern. It is high time to reconsider the goals and values that presently guide the scientific enterprise.                    

Traditionally, science has mostly been regarded as a benefactor of humanity, as an integral part of human development towards greater knowledge and deeper understanding of the world that the human being so strongly wishes to control. Popular enthusiasm for science has been rather varied, but the overall image of science has been good. Today, however, science suffers from a serious image problem. In large parts of the world, people no longer conceive of science as being essentially a benefactor of humanity, nor do they readily associate science with the classical quest to develop a more enlightened civilisation. Trust in the ethical integrity and responsibility of scientists is declining partly to be replaced by suspicion and fear of abuses of various kinds.

One reason is the insensitivity that many scientists have shown in regard to ethical problems arising from their research. By virtue of dealing essentially with human interests, ethical debate has long been banished from traditional science by its norms of ‘disinterestedness’ and ‘objectivity’. As John Ziman writes: "In pursuit of complete "objectivity" – admittedly a major virtue – the norm [of disinterestedness] rules that all research results should be conducted, presented, and discussed quite impersonally, as if produced by androids or angels...this "no ethics" principle is not just an obsolete model that can be uninstalled by a keystroke. It is an integral part of a complex cultural form."

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However, this traditionally individualistic and socially secluded quest for ‘objective knowledge’ is today being substituted for project-oriented teamwork science that needs to justify itself in terms of potential human consequences. This gives science an explicit ethical dimension that cannot be ignored. The challenges facing us today are daunting, and there can be no doubt but that science shares the responsibility of meeting them.

In exchange for public funding, scientists are committed to contributing to finding solutions to the most pressing problems in society today. Investment in science is predicated upon the expectation of some return to society. The question is, what? Much of the investment in science in this century has been motivated by wars (World Wars I & II, the Cold War, and numerous other military interventions). In a more peaceful world, other scientific returns would be expected. Most important is perhaps to move towards a more sustainable biosphere that is simultaneously economically feasible and ecologically sound. Many in the scientific community demand that this sustainable biosphere should also be socially just (cf. Topic 3).

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As the world-wide demand for research grows whilst the available funds are tightened, competition amongst scientists increases and new alliances are formed. In the pursuit of the advancement of knowledge and the creation of new technologies, traditional institutions of science look for new ways to organise and market their activities. The laws of the marketplace seem sometimes to overshadow the more traditional values and norms of the scientific enterprise. For the critics of science, this development signifies a gloomy vision of a demoralised and socially irresponsible science. For them, science has become the willing servant of those who are in power, and scientific rationality the paradigm for a de-humanised way of thinking, devoid of commitment and value (cf. Topic 2). The general public rarely conceives science as a voice for them, a part that has largely been taken over by NGOs and special interest groups. Many active politicians nourish a deep scepticism towards the contributions science can make to a responsible design of policy. For numerous young people, science does not provide sufficient stimuli for personal engagement or future careers.

From the point of view of scientific development, this decline is unsatisfactory for pragmatic reasons, if not for ethical ones. In so far as science is seen as a threat to society, the political support of science is likely to diminish, and laws might be passed that limit its pursuit (for better of for worse, depending on one's perspective). Furthermore, science needs more than material support, it needs public trust. The attitudes of media are relevant in that context: horror-scenarios that may be selling but lack scientific basis, or reports that create false hopes about a particular research area’s putative applications harm research by undermining public trust.

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There is no doubt that much of the scientific and technological development of the 20th century resulted in great benefits for humankind. And, indeed, the frontiers of today’s science may hold promises of even greater future benefits. On the other hand, as many scientists today recognise, these benefits are distributed on our globe with profound inequality. Furthermore, threats to our environment and obstacles for a peaceful co-existence between different peoples and nations, are to a large extent directly or indirectly the results of the scientific enterprise. So whilst modern science certainly deserves praise for many new achievements, deeper knowledge and insights that we have gained through its pursuit, science must also accept criticism for the destructive part it has played and continues to play in some of the less glorious chapters of our history.

It is noteworthy - and promising - that the interest in the ethics of science and in ethical issues arising in its various applications has grown significantly during the past years. This interest is detectable both within the various scientific disciplines and in the general public of science. A variety of efforts are made to further this discussion and to provide orientation and guidelines. The Uppsala Code of Ethics For Scientists that was formulated in 1984 initiated by the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs states:

Scientific research is an indispensable activity of great significance to mankind - for our description and understanding of the world, our material conditions, social life and welfare. Research can contribute to solving the great problems facing humanity, such as the threat of nuclear war, damage to the environment, and the uneven distribution of the Earth's resources…Yet research can also, both directly and indirectly, aggravate the problems of mankind. This code of ethics for scientists has been formulated as a response to a concern about the applications and consequences of scientific research. In particular it appears that the potential hazards deriving from modern technological warfare are so overwhelming that it is doubtful whether it is ethically defensible for scientists to lend any support to weapons development.

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The role of ethics in science has acquired many new dimensions of meaning and relevance. More and more active scientists underscore the importance of engaging in discussions about ethics, and an increasing number of critics challenge science at precisely this point. Numerous institutions and countries have recognised this. They have established fora and committees where the ethical issues of the scientific enterprise are dealt with. Ethics is a common ground for science and its publics, promising to establish a new and mutual understanding. This dynamic role of ethics for science is further reflected in measures taken by important international organisations. The 25th General Assembly of ICSU, having approved the establishment of a Standing Committee on Responsibility and Ethics in Science (SCRES), suggested that "the Committee prepare ICSU statements on responsibility and ethics in science to be widely disseminated" (September 1996, Washington DC). UNESCO has later established a World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) for similar purposes. The World Science Conference organised jointly by ICSU and UNESCO in Budapest 1999 aims at a fuller view of the role of science in the coming decades. Ethics plays a central role in this discussion.

It is the opinion of SCRES that the present state of affairs calls for a powerful statement about the ethical responsibilities of science towards society and present or future generations, and towards the environment. In part this may be seen as a strong emphasis on those value commitments inherent in scientific activity that stand threatened by present economic and socio-political trends. In part, it can also be regarded as a delineation and clarification of those values that science as a whole should heed to a greater extent and that are necessitated by the social and environmental problems of our time. Thus we envisage that a constructive ethical debate between science and its publics will ensue, based on this new conception. This debate should be conducted with a mutual willingness to self-critical examinations of current practices and ideologies. While ethics and ethical discussions certainly cannot provide an answer to all the current problems, they do offer general normative orientation and facilitate the dialogue with a concerned public. Good ethics creates trust and commitment, and trust dissolves when ethics become compromised.

There is a great number of specific issues deserving closer attention with respect to their ethical underpinning. In order to highlight some of the issues that raise fundamental and important ethical problems we shall proceed briefly to describe selected examples.