Thursday, July 21, 2005

UNESCO's Ethics Program

UNESCO Ethics homepage

UNESCO has had an ethics program for many years. The program includes several cross-cutting activities: the Ethics Education Program (EEP), the Global Ethics Observatory (GEO) and the Ethics around the World series of rotating conferences.

There is a specific program on the Ethics of Science and Technology, with its World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST). Among it activities are:

- the Avicenna Prize for Ethics in Science;

- Ethics of Outer Space

- Ethics of the Environment

- Code of Conduct for Scientists

There are a number of online publications on the website, and information on the current and recent research undertaken by COMEST. These include comments the U.S. President's Council on Bioethics' report on the regulation of reproductive technologies.

Of particular interest is the work on the Ethics of Nanotechnology. The website includes a number of background papers, as well as a report of a recent COMEST meeting on the topic. "A workplan for nanotechnology and ethics is about to be finalized. In July 2005, an expert group will be established to examine the ethical issues in relation to nanotechnology and to explore potential areas for international concerted action."

Given the developing economic importance of industrial applications of nanotechnology, the leadership of the United States in the field, and the scare tactics that have already appeared in the brief history of nanotechnology, this effort would appear worthy of close attention by the United States.

The Ethics program also includes a component on Bioethics. A Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights has been drafted, and is to be submitted for approval to the next meetings of the Executive Board and General Conference of UNESCO.

The draft contains many important and appropriate statements on bioethics. I would note that the drafting committee was composed of three distinguished lawyers, a professor of Philosophy, a professor of Education and a professor of Medical Ethics. There were no scientists on the committee with experience in the management of ethical issues. The declaration is heavily oriented toward medical ethics, a topic one might have expected to be more in the domain of the World Health Organization than of UNESCO. The draft Declaration does not seem to address (except in the most general terms): cloning, genomics, proteomics, genetic modification of plants and animals, ethical treatment of animals involved in research (laboratory animals, livestock, nor wild animals), containment of human, animal or plant pathogens, containment of pests and invasive species, biodiversity, nor protection of the environment from risks imposed by research. It seems silent on the balance of risks and potential benefits from bioresearch.

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