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  • Scientists accept need to act responsibly

[ROME] Scientists' ethical responsibilities have been enshrined for the first time in a statute of the International Council for Science (ICSU), which represents major science academies and international science unions.

The council has amended an existing statute on scientific freedom to include an obligation on scientists to display integrity in their work, be transparent, and recognise the possible harms of what they do.

ICSU is an international non-governmental organisation whose members include the scientific bodies of 140 countries as well as 30 international scientific unions. It has long fought for the principle of the 'universality of science', which defends scientists' freedom of movement, of association, of expression and of communication, as well as equitable access to data, information and research materials.

But the council believes there is a growing feeling within the scientific community that scientists should also shoulder certain responsibilities.

Bengt Gustafsson, chair of the council's Committee on Freedom and Responsibility in the Conduct of Science, told SciDev.Net that this was partly because of the rise of issues such as climate change and food insecurity "that require science for their solution".

"Many of us feel that we have to mobilise to assist with these things," he said.

The new clause, approved overwhelmingly today (30 September) at the council's General Assembly in Rome, Italy, says: "It requires responsibility at all levels to carry out and communicate scientific work with integrity, respect, fairness, trustworthiness, and transparency, recognising its benefits and possible harms".

A supporting document, 'Freedom, Responsibility and Universality of Science', prepared by the committee, says: "There is an increasing recognition by the scientific community that it needs to more fully engage societal stakeholders in explaining, developing and implementing research agendas.

"A central aspect of ensuring the freedoms of scientists and the longer term future of science is not only conducting science responsibly but being able to publicly demonstrate that science is being conducted responsibly."

ICSU has, over the years, taken up cases of scientists whose freedom to practise has been curtailed by political situations, such as travel restrictions on South African scientists during apartheid.

Gustafsson told SciDev.Net that these campaigns, which will continue, would be strengthened by the statute.

"We [the scientists] require considerable freedom. It is good to be able to say that we are using these freedoms in a responsible way."

Carthage Smith, deputy executive director of ICSU, acknowledged that no-one could predict what effect the new statute would have.

"It is a normative statement that has the community behind it," he said. "The 'freedoms' part has had a great impact but the 'responsibility' part? We don't know."

He predicted that the committee's support for whistle-blowing under certain circumstances, expressed in the accompanying document, might strengthen scientists' resolve to speak out if they become aware of unethical behaviour.

The council's committee has in the last few years developed a stance on scientists' responsibility to communicate their findings, on codes of research ethics, and on the obligation to share scientific data, particularly with respect to the needs of scientists in developing countries.

Link to 'Freedom, Responsibility and Universality of Science'

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