Friday, February 06, 2009

Editorial: Possible Fields for UNESCO Ethical Instruments

UNESCO is holding a special cycle of four ‘60 Minutes’ meetings in February 2009 to consider examines it might take to advance ethical standards, guidelines and principles in four areas: the environment and climate change, education systems, information society and human cloning. The effort is apparently under the direction of Henk Tenhaven, Some of the materials in support of that work are:
In support of that effort I present two ideas that UNESCO staff and advisors might explore in the area of ethics of science and technology.

A Convention on the Ethical Conduct of Research

There might be a need for work on the standards, guidelines and principles for the ethical conduct of research.

In the United States there are a large number of standards and guidelines for researcher that include:
  • The ethical treatment of human subjects
  • The ethical treatment of non-human primates
  • The ethical treatment of other laboratory animals (not including rats and fish)
  • The ethical treatment of livestock
  • The ethical treatmenet of wild animals
  • The containment of hazardous materials
  • The containment of human pathogens
  • The containment of animal pathogens
  • The containment of exotic species
  • The containment of genetically altered organisms
  • The international shipment of plants and plant materials
  • The international shipment of hazardous materials
  • The public availability of experimental data
  • Fraud and deceit in the proposals for research funding or in the description of research results
  • Plagerism
For many years I managed programs which financed collaborative research between scientists in the United States and scientists in developing nations. It was my experience that many developing countries did not have strong institutions to deal with one or more of these ethical issues.

An example that seems humorous in retrospect may illustrate the problem. One of the programs on which I worked involved studies of the mosquito vectors of malaria. In such research it is often necessary to use "human baits" -- people who sit outside and let mosquitos bite them so that the mosquitos can be captured and studied. Many people serving as human baits come down with malaria. In the peer review of an early proposal for a study under the program, the reviewers asked about the protection and treatment of the people involved as human baits. We contacted the proponents of the project who responded that they would follow the WHO guidelines on the subject. The proposal was approved, and a series of other proposals were subsequently submitted and approved, all of which relied on the WHO guidelines. It was only later that we discovered that there were no WHO guidelines for the ethical treatment of people serving as human baits in mosquito vector research.

International research collaboration has been increasing for decades. All such collaborations in principle require that the research be conducted in accord with the ethical standards of the countries in which each of the researchers works. Moreover, the research must pass the review panels and procedures institutionalized by the countries involved.

There are a number of intergovernmental organizations that relate to this situation including UNESCO, FAO and WHO. Of course other intergovernmental organizations or programs that fund research, such as the World Bank and other international financial institutions and the UNDP are also affected. UNESCO may have the broadest mandate among these to deal with the ethical conduct of research, especially under the auspices of its Commission on the Ethics of Science and Technology.

Perhaps UNESCO might convene a meeting with representatives of the relevant intergovernmental agencies, working scientists and experts in the ethics of the conduct of research to consider whether an international instrument for the harmonization of guidelines, standards principles in this field might be useful.

The Ethical Responsibilities of Governments to Support Regulatory Research

Another area that might be explored is the responsibilities of governments to carry out research to enable appropriate regulation of emerging technologies. It seems to me that if industrial R&D is heavily funded within a country in areas such as new materials, biotechnology, nanotechnology, or pharmacology then the government of that country should have a responsibility to fund the research required to establish a basis for suitable regulation of the commercial application of the technologies. While UNIDO might have a role to play in this field, it seems to me that regulatory science is not really under the jurisdiction of any other UN agency. Therefore UNESCO might quite appropriately lead in exploring whether some instrument might be appropriate to require signatory nations to allocate public resources to regulatory research in an appropriate ratio to the national Gross Expenditures on Research and Development of emerging technologies.

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