Friday, September 03, 2010

A Comment on the Ethics of Research: A Role for UNESCO

For a couple of decades I was involved in the management of grants programs that funded research in developing nations. One of the key issues in the management of such a program was assuring that the research we funded be conducted ethically.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that different societies have different views on ethics. For example, it is generally agreed that research involving human subjects should only be done with informed consent. However, different societies have differing views as to who should provide that consent. In the United States, the informed consent normally comes from the subject himself/herself. In some African societies, the consent must be communal, often provided by a village chief. There are also differences as to the age at which a subject is thought able to give informed consent, and who has the right to give consent for those deemed unable due to age or other condition.

Given such differences, our practice was to have research protocols reviewed by institutions in all of the countries involved in a specific project. That was often difficult in that institutions in countries that do not do much research were often poorly equipped to do effective ethical review. The capacity to do so depends on the existence of institutional review boards, clear statements of ethical standards, and people experienced in the ethical review of research. There were also questions as to which questions could be delegated, and which we had to directly assure ethical conduct.

Some of the ethical concerns involved in research ethics are:

  • Ethical treatment of human subjects of biomedical, social science and other kinds of research
  • Ethics of research involving human reproductive biology (e.g. research involving stem cells)
  • Ethical treatment of non-human primates in laboratory research and/or in research on wild animals
  • Ethical treatment of other laboratory animals
  • Ethical treatment of livestock involved in field studies
  • Ethical treatment of wild animals (other than primates) involved in field studies
  • Safety of researchers (consideration of radiation risks, exposure to pathogens, exposure to noxious substances, etc.)
  • Safe containment of human pathogens (to protect the public from accidental releases)
  • Safe containment of animal or plant pathogens
  • Ethical conduct of research involving recombinant DNA
  • Protection of endangered species that might be affected by the research
  • Ethical concern for environmental risks consequent to the research beyond those already mentioned (e.g. the risk of escape of exotic species which might damage agriculture)
  • Safety in the international shipment of potentially dangerous materials (e.g. radioactive materials or samples that might contain pests or pathogens)
  • The treatment of data collected during research (e.g. protection of confidentiality, appropriate sharing for scientific review)
UNESCO has a program focusing on the Ethics of Science and Technology, with an International Bioethics Committee, and Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee, and a World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology. The program and its international bodies do not seem to have taken much interest in the ethical conduct of research as described above. UNESCO has an affiliated network of University Chairs in Bioethics which could be the basis for an expanded role research ethics.

UNESCO could, and I believe should play an important role:
  • as a forum for the discussion of ethical issues involved in the conduct of scientific research and technology development;
  • as a clearinghouse for information on best practices in assuring the ethical conduct of research;
  • as an agent helping developing countries develop the capacity to assure the ethical conduct of research conducted within their borders; 
  • as the central UN science agency, in convening a working group of WHO, UNFPA, UNAIDS, FAO, UNIDO and other UN agencies to discuss research ethics; and
  • as a legitimate neutral party to help in parties come to agreement on ethical standards for multinational research projects.
John Daly
(The opinions expressed above are mine, and do not necessarily reflect those of Americans for UNESCO or any other organization.)

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