The ethics of science and scholarship

By Eric Fawcett | 1994-03-01 12:00:00

Codes of conduct for research in the natural sciences, medicine, social sciences, technology, law and theology: the Uppsala Code and the Toronto Resolution

The scientific community, in its concern with ethical standards, has focused largely on such negative practices as fraud and professional misconduct. Professional organizations, in their own codes of ethics and standards of conduct, have defined particular obligations and responsibilities. For example, medical ethics focuses largely on research involving human subjects, while other scientific organizations have commented on scientific integrity. Few statements exist, however, regarding the positive practice of science. With science increasingly becoming a collaborative enterprise, both internationally and among disciplines, now is the time to formulate a scientific ethic promoting positive obligations and responsibilities.

At Uppsala University in Sweden a few scientists met from 1981 to 1984 to explore ethical problems of research. They represented a variety of disciplines-natural sciences, medicine, social sciences, technology, law, and theology-and formulated a code of ethics for scientists, which was published by Bengt Gustaffson et al., fournal of Peace Research, Vol. 21, 1984, p. 312. The code follows below.

Uppsala Code of Ethics for Scientists

Scientific research is an activity of great significance to humankind for our description and understanding of the world, our material conditions, our social life, and our welfare. Research can contribute to solving humanity’s great problems, such as the threat of nuclear war, damage to the environment, and the uneven distribution of the Earth’s resources. Scientific research is also valuable as a pure quest for knowledge, to be pursued by a free exchange of methods and findings. Yet research can also aggravate the problems of humankind.

This code of ethics for scientists responds to concerns about the use of scientific research. In particular, the hazards of modern warfare are so overwhelming that it is doubtful whether it is ethically defensible for scientists to support weapons development.

The code is intended for the individual scientist; it is primarily he or she who shall assess the consequences of his/her own research. Such an assessment is always difficult and sometimes impossible. Scientists do not usually control the results or application of their research, and often cannot control the planning of their work. Still, each individual scientist must sincerely try to judge the possible consequences of his/her research, to make these judgments known, and to refrain from such research as he/she deems to be unethical.

The following should particularly be considered:

It is important for the scientific community to support colleagues who find it necessary to cease their research for the reasons given in this code.

On November 8 and 9, 1991, twenty-three scientists, academics, physicians and students attended a Science for Peace workshop in Toronto to discuss ethical codes in science and research. The Workshop on Ethical Considerations in Scholarship and Science took place a few days following the International Symposium on Constraints on the Freedom of Scholarship and Science, which was held in Ottawa by the Royal Society of Canada. Four of the international participants from the Royal Society meeting attended the workshop, and were joined by participants from the University of Toronto, and from neigh boring universities.

The workshop produced The Toronto Resolution (TTR), which is reproduced below. TTR grew out of a realization that since the scientific revolution, human exploitation of natural resources and pollution of the biosphere threaten life on our planet. The workshop participants believe the document presents the central issues to consider when preparing scholarly and scientific ethical codes or in augmenting existing ones. The Toronto Resolution contains a statement of intent, a Preamble, and twelve suggested Elements of Codes of Ethics.
The resolution suggests ways of assessing particular ethical codes of science and scholarship, and identifies key elements that all such codes should include. It proposes a common preamble for all such ethical codes—a statement acknowledging scientists’ and scholars’ responsibilities to humankind and to the Earth. It calls for the avoidance of studies that are likely to harm the quality of life. The purpose of TTR is to create a world-wide moral community of scholars and scientists with a common moral framework for the conduct of their investigations. Ideally, new codes will be informed by these considerations, and existing codes will be reviewed.

The Toronto Resolution

All codes of ethics in science and scholarship should include certain key elements. We suggest that codes adopt a common preamble. We hope that the community of scholars and scientists can agree to a particular code in the light of these considerations, and that they will examine their existing codes for adequacy, effectiveness, and applicability.

I Preamble

Living in a world in which all forms of life are interdependent, we recognize that human activity since the scientific revolution now threatens much of the life on our planet. This threat stems in part from reckless exploitation of the earth’s resources and massive pollution of the biosphere by humankind, exacerbated by rampant militarism. To help solve these problems, scientists, scholars, and all those concerned with the welfare of life on earth, need to unite in a worldwide moral community, with fundamental consideration for beneficence and justice at a global level. Knowledge gives power. Because power tends to corrupt and may be used for dangerous and destructive purposes, scientists and scholars, who share the privilege of participating in the advancement of knowledge-many under the shelter of academic freedom and in the tradition of open publication-have a particular responsibility to society for the effects of their work. They should make a determined effort to foresee the possible consequences of their research and avoid studies that are likely to harm the quality of life.

Knowledge also gives enlightenment and promises emancipation from disease, poverty and other social evils. As an enlightened community of experts and citizens, scientists and scholars should participate in directing their research and its applications to benign ends, while educating their students and the public concerning this, the proper role of scholarly and scientific knowledge.

II Elements of Ethical Codes

Considering the existence of numerous codes of ethics, most being specific to a single discipline and often to the scientists and scholars in only one country;

Considering the difficulty of expressing in a single code the concerns of scientists and scholars in various disciplines and in different countries;

Considering that war is obsolete, futile, and destructive beyond comprehension, and that the present level of direct military research is unprecedented, with human, physical, and financial resources being diverted away from the proper ends of science and scholarship:

Working group appointed

The participants intend TTR to be distributed widely in the international scientific and scholarly communities, in the hope that it will elicit comments and promote discussion on the subject of ethical codes and responsibilities. In this spirit a Working Group on Ethical Considerations in Science and Scholarship was approved by the Board of Science for Peace in June 1993, having as its purpose “to promote the adoption of ethical codes and guidelines in scientific, engineering, and other societies and to encourage mechanisms that make them effective in practice.” The initial project of the Working Group was to solicit the Ethical Codes, Codes of Conduct, and Ethical Guidelines from all organizations in the Province of Ontario that would be willing to provide these, and carry out a content analysis on them, to determine the degree of correspondence with the principles set out in TTR. In Canada, professional organizations are licensed provincially, so limiting scope to Ontario still allowed for a wide range of professional and scholarly societies.

A report on this project will be presented shortly in the Bulletin of Science for Peace (Vol. 14, No. 2) by the Chair of the Working Group, the distinguished computer scientist, Professor C.C. (Kelly) Gotlieb. Future projects might be guided by the relevant activities of prominent organizations. A Working Group of the International Federation of Information Processing Societies (IFIP) is studying the ethical codes of information technology societies in different countries. The objective is “to emphasize not the content of a Code, but the process of promoting open national fora to ensure that ethical questions are not obliterated in practice.” Another project undertaken by the Ethics Committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is to collect the codes of as many organizations as possible, and publish them in a series of volumes grouped by disciplines, along with comments about their implementation. The Centre for Applied Ethics at the University of British Columbia is a focus for work on professional ethics.

Eric Fawcett is a physicist and founding president of Science for Peace.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1994

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1994, page 25. Some rights reserved.

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