Universal Ethical Code for Scientists: SGR Response

Response to a consultation, 1 November 2005
 

Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) is a UK-based membership organisation promoting ethical science, design and technology - based on the principles of openness, accountability, peace, social justice, and environmental sustainability. It comprises approximately 850 members across the natural and social sciences, engineering, IT, architecture and design.

We very much welcome this initiative by the Chief Scientific Advisor and the Council for Science and Technology to encourage greater consideration of ethical issues by science and technology professionals. It is good to see, for example, that the proposed code puts consideration of impacts on the environment alongside the more conventional ethical issue of scientific integrity.

However, we believe that this initiative is weak in a number of respects. For example, this code – which is intended to be voluntary – encourages scientists to ‘ensure that [their] work is lawful’ and ‘declare conflicts of interest’. These should not be voluntary recommendations, they should be mandatory requirements. Many other professions have strict codes of practice on such things – and it is long overdue for scientists to improve their standards on these issues.

Another shortcoming of the code is related to the point about encouraging scientists to ‘minimise… any adverse effect your work may have on people, animals and the natural environment’. We firmly believe that a voluntary code should go rather further. It should encourage scientists to prioritise work with has likely social and environmental benefits. With current government policy – as outlined in the ten year science and innovation investment framework – encouraging scientists to focus on work which has commercial or military relevance, it is important that initiatives such as this remind scientists that the wider benefits for society are the real priority.

The consultation paper mentions the importance of the other initiatives and measures relevant to ethical issues, eg institutional codes and legal requirements. We agree these are also very important and would like to see them strengthened further to support the proposed code for individuals. For example, there needs to be greater legal protection for whistleblowers and there need to be stronger measures to encourage professional institutions and universities to take further action in support of environmental protection.

In summary, the proposed voluntary code is a useful step on the road to more ethical science and technology, but to make a real impact, it needs to be strengthened and accompanied by wider, and in some cases mandatory, measures.

Appendix

Proposed text of code (for more details, see http://www.cst.gov.uk/cst/business/files/ethical-code-letter.pdf)

Rigour, respect and responsibility: a universal ethical code for scientists

Rigour, honesty and integrity
Act with skill and care in all scientific work. Maintain up to date skills and assist their development in others.
Take steps to prevent corrupt practices and professional misconduct. Declare conflicts of interest.
Be alert to the ways in which research derives from and affects the work of other people, and respect the rights and reputations of others.

Respect for life, the law and the public good
Ensure that your work is lawful and justified.
Minimise and justify any adverse effect your work may have on people, animals and the natural environment.

Responsible communication: listening and informing
Seek to discuss the issues that science raises for society. Listen to the aspirations and concerns of others.
Do not knowingly mislead, or allow others to be misled, about scientific matters. Present and review scientific evidence, theory or interpretation honestly and accurately.