Thursday, February 05, 2009

Editorial: A Concern Raised by Change in U.S. Members of COMEST

Robert P. George, a U.S. citizen, is currently a member of UNESCO's World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST). Midge Decter, another U.S. citizen, is now listed among the former members of the Commission.

The Commission, founded in 1998 with a Bureau provided by the Social and Human Sciences program of UNESCO, is an advisory body and forum of reflection composed of 18 independent experts. "The Commission is mandated to formulate ethical principles that could provide decision-makers with criteria other than purely economic."

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, where he lectures on constitutional interpretation, civil liberties and philosophy of law. According to Wikipedia, he "is a prominent proponent of 'New Natural Law Theory,' a distinctive approach to moral, political, and legal philosophy that views moral truths as accessible to rational inquiry, and postulates as the criterion of sound ethical judgment the integral directiveness of various basic and irreducible aspects of human fulfillment, such as knowledge, friendship, critical aesthetic appreciation, and personal authenticity and integrity." He currently serves on the U.S. President's Council on Bioethics and "is involved in pro-life and pro-family advocacy."

Midge Decter is described by UNESCO as an author and editor. She is also a member of the board of trustees of the Heritage Foundation, the board of Security Policy, Institute on Religion and Public Life, Philadelphia Society and is chairperson of the Clare Booth Luce Foundation.

Editor's comment: These are the only two people from the United States who have served on COMEST with the exception of ex officio members. Both are very conservative politically; both have ties to the Bush administration. While Professor George appears to be a distinguished legal expert with a strong interest in a number of ethical issues, neither seems expert in the ethics of science and technology.

The most recent meeting of COMEST, for example, dealt with the following topics:
  • Environmental ethics, including ethical implications of climate change;
  • Science ethics, including particularly the implementation of the 1974 Recommendation on the Status of Scientific Researchers;
  • Nanotechnology ethics, and;
  • Information ethics.
These are very complex issues and COMEST is expected to deal with them with deep understanding of the science and technology as well as with the applicable ethical principles and theories.

It is the responsibility of UNESCO to appoint the members of this Commission. It should do so seeking first to assure that the individuals are not only qualified professionals, but global leaders in their understanding of the ethics of science and technology. Its secondary responsibility is to assure that the Commission as a whole represents a spectrum of philosophical positions so that its recommendations are not unduly biased toward any one point of view.

The appointment in recent years of two U.S. citizens who have such close ties to the Bush administration and such apparent lack of expertise in the ethics of science and technology, taken together with the lack of appointments of U.S. citizens prior to the reentry of the United States into UNESCO, makes me suspect that there may have been undue deference by UNESCO's Secretariat to governmental representatives in the appointments of members to this Commission. If so, that would be most regrettable!

It is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of State to pressure UNESCO resist undue political pressures from the governments of member states. While the U.S. government, in cooperation with the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, can be very helpful to UNESCO in helping to identify Americans with the necessary qualifications to serve on UNESCO's advisory bodies, it should do so with considerable tact and diplomacy. It should certainly refrain from pressuring UNESCO to appoint unqualified persons because of their close ties with the administration in power. If the State Department indeed pressured UNESCO to appoint these two people to COMEST, that too would be most regrettable!

John Daly
(The opinions expressed above are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO.)

1 comment:

John Daly said...

Sid Passman reminds me that M. R. C. (Margaret) Greenwood was a member of COMEST in the past. She is an American scientist with long experience in science policy and higher education policy positions.