Sunday, August 14, 2011

Editorial: UNESCO should support capacity building needed to better assure the ethical conduct of research

UNESCO has a program on the ethics of science and technology. Let me suggest that that program undertake a major effort to improve the ethical conduct of research, especially through support for capacity building in developing nations. Some of the issues that merit high priority are:
  • Misconduct in science, including such concerns as plagarism and fraudulent practices
  • Assurance that the peoples exposed to risks inherent in risks are also representative of the potential beneficiaries of the research if it is successful
  • Ethical treatment of researchers, laboratory workers and other people assisting in the research
  • Ethical conduct with respect to human subjects involved in the research (this has several distinct elements which are treated differently, such as patients in biomedical research, subjects in psychological or social science research, subjects involved in online research. Cultural norms are different in different societies as to who should provide the consent, how to inform the consent giver, and the ethical responsibility to specific populations such as prisoners, military personnel and mental patients.
  • Ethical conduct of the treatment of laboratory animals. Again, there are often different regulations for the treatment of non-human primates, caged mammals, livestock, fish, etc.
  • Ethical conduct of the treatment of wild animals that are research subjects, such as those involved in catch and release programs.
  • Ethical conduct with respect to the containment of materials involved in research. This is an especially complex area, including the containment of human, animal and plant pathogens, containment of exogenous species, containment of radiological materials, containment of recombinant and synthetic organisms. The issues are different with respect to the shipment, especially international shipment of materials, laboratory use of materials, and field release of materials.
  • Appropriate treatment of environmental issues, such as assurance that endangered species will not be further endangered and there will be no other environmental problems caused as a result of the research
  • Ethical issues related to the funding of research including preparation of proposals, there (peer) review, and the allocation of funds
  • Ethical issues in the reporting of research, including the publication of results
  • Ethical issue in the treatment of intellectual property arising from research
  • Ethical issues in the conduct of research in different institutional settings, such as government laboratories, universities, corporations, foundations, and non-governmental organizations.
  • Ethical conduct of research in multinational teams and by researchers working in countries other than their own
Those who have never worked in a research laboratory may not recognize how dangerous such a place may be. In the half dozen years in which I worked in an industrial laboratory, a couple of people were hospitalized due to a laboratory accident (one for many months), there was a release of toxic gases that killed livestock near one of the lab facilities, another of my colleagues was suffering from radiation sickness as a result of a previous laboratory accident, and when its nozzle broke a torpedo shaped tank of gas flew through wall after wall separating the different labs. As a research manager I had responsibility for epidemiological research programs in which research subjects died. I worked with very distinguished people who early in their careers were involved in the Nazi research lab in Peenemunde and in the Tuskegee Syphilis study. I take the ethical conduct of research very seriously, especially since the credibility of the scientific community is crucial to the utility of its work.

What can UNESCO do in this field? I would suggest that it can do many things, and often do them better than bilateral agencies of development banks:

  • It can bring together experts from different cultures to discuss and debate such as those described above in order to clarify common ethical positions and those issues on which reasonable people can differ.
  • It can provide an observatory, allowing science policy workers to easily access information on the systems that have been put in place around the world to assure the ethical conduct of research.
  • It can convene meetings of science policy workers from countries seeking to collaborate in multinational research projects to discuss how their various concerns can all be met in such projects/
  • It can identify expert consultants who can advise developing country science policy workers and institutions as to how they might build the capacity of their own organizational mechanisms to assure the ethical conduct of research.
  • It can establish criteria and indicators that nations can utilize to measure their success in assuring the ethical conduct of research, and it can advise science policy workers as to how to do so in such a way that they can effectively compare their success with that of other nations.
  • It can promote the development of training programs, especially international training programs such as those provided by UNESCO Category II Centers, on the ethical conduct of research.

As new fields of science come to the fore, so do new ethical issues. Thus the development of recombinant DNA led to issues with respect to the containment of recombinant organisms. The patenting of genes discovered in research also raised novel ethical issues. Thus, even the most developed national scientific institutions periodically must face new ethical issues. Perhaps more important, the detection of ethical problems regularly result in efforts to strengthen institutions assuring ethical behavior in order to prevent their recurrence. In the case of less developed nations, as new areas of research are first undertaken there arise new needs for institutional development to assure ethical action.

Other UN agencies and programs have interests in the ethical conduct of research. Thus, the World Health Organization has interests in helping its member nations assure the ethical conduct of biomedical research, the Food and Agriculture Organization with the ethical conduct of agricultural research, and the United Nations Environmental Program with that of environmental research. However, UNESCO given its wide responsibility for science and the long history of its program in the ethics of science and technology appears especially suited to work with science policy agencies in its member nations in order to build the ethical aspects of their national research institutions.

John Daly
The ideas expressed in this posting are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO.

1 comment:

John Daly said...

A distinction is sometimes made between "science for policy" and "policy for science". This editorial focuses on the ethical conduct of research, an element which might be seen within the policy for science. There are other ethical questions that might be addressed with respect to the scientific agenda, such as whether social scientists can legitimately study ethnic groups and then consult with military forces at war with factions of that ethnic group.

There are also ethical questions such as the ethical limits to the debate over science in areas such as public policy towards climate change or towards the teaching of evolution in schools. Indeed, a study done by UNESCO looked at the precautionary principle with respect to climate change.

I wrote the editorial to convey my belief that UNESCO should give very high priority to building capacity in developing nations to assure the ethical conduct of research in those countries, as opposed to these other topics!