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  • Scientific community calls for universal code of conduct


[BUDAPEST] Representatives of many of the world's top science research organisations have endorsed a call for a universal code of conduct on the rights, freedom and responsibilities of scientific workers, demanding that such a code be recognised by, and built into, the legislation of individual countries.

The call formed part of a declaration that was adopted last weekend (19 November) by participants in the World Science Forum, an international meeting of scientists and parliamentarians, held in Hungary last week (17–19 November).

The declaration included proposals on topics ranging from scientific capacity building to the global divide in access to scientific knowledge.

A code of conduct, it states, would help avoid harm "due to ignorance or misjudgement of the consequences of new discoveries and applications of scientific knowledge".

"It is the responsibility of those who promote science and scientists to maintain the primacy of moral and social concerns over short-term economic interest in the selection and implementation of industrialised research projects."

The strongly worded position follows an amendment by the International Council for Science (ICSU) of its existing statute on scientific freedom to include scientists' responsibilities alongside a defence of their freedoms.

It is one of the highlights of the declaration, said Sir Brian Heap, a member of the forum's steering committee and chairman of the European Academies Science Advisory Council.

"Science, technology and innovation as the underpinnings of economic success were never in doubt. But they don't have all the answers, particularly with renewed worries about the primacy of moral and social concerns over short-term returns."

But Carthage Smith, deputy executive director of ICSU, one of the forum's partner organisations, said: "Whilst science is universal and a small number of norms for the practice of science can be defined or codified (accuracy, integrity, openness, honesty, impartiality, respect) a detailed code of conduct is unlikely to be universally useful.

"Detailed codes need to be developed locally, using these norms as a starting point and translating them into good practices in discussion with the relevant parts of the scientific community."  

The declaration recognises that the scientific world has become 'multipolar', with emerging economies becoming the "key players in cutting-edge research and development activities". In addition to ethics, the declaration issued statements in four other areas.

However, some of the pronouncements are not new, and are similar to those issued in 1999, at the World Conference of Science, which inspired the biennial science forums, or indeed, the conclusions coming out of previous fora.

These include the "urgent need to reduce the gap between the developing and developed countries by improving scientific capacity and infrastructure in developing countries" and the need for more collaboration, gender balance, the importance of science in policy and regulatory decision making and even a call for a code of ethics for scientists.

But it is debatable what impact those recommendations had following the 1999 conference.

Smith said that, while the recommendations may not be novel, they do reflect a growing consensus that 'business as usual' for science is not enough in the face of the [environmental] challenges that the world is facing.

The next World Science Forum will take place in Brazil in 2013.

Link to full declaration

Link to SciDev.Net's blog from the World Science Forum

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