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  • Double boost for research ethics in developing nations

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[CAIRO] The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) is in the final stages of launching its Global Ethics Observatory (GEO), a collection of online databases and other resources aimed at strengthening research ethics in UN member states.

The databases will gather contact details of ethics experts and institutions, as well as information about ethics teaching programmes, legislation and guidelines. GEO will also produce 'information packages' on subjects such as setting up ethics committees and drafting legislative proposals, as well as tailor made packages in response to users' requests.

The GEO databases will be important for developing countries in several ways, such as allowing people to identify experts or institutions working in particular areas of ethics, says Henk ten Have, director of UNESCO's Ethics of Science and Technology Division.

Examples of laws and guidelines in the ethics legislation database can be used as models to make national guidelines and laws, and the teaching programmes database will provide descriptions of courses in ethics "so that the wheel does not have to be invented," says ten Have.

As well as providing information, GEO will also help establish networks of ethics experts and will mediate between different professional activities in various regions of the world.

"We are just about to go operational," ten Have told SciDev.Net. "In some weeks we hope to have the GEO available on the website."

Although the main GEO server — with information in English and French — will be located in Paris, France, regional centres have been started in Porto Alegre, Brazil (with information in Spanish and Portuguese) and Vilnius, Lithuania (with information in Russian). Additional centres providing Arabic and Chinese content are planned.

In the meantime — for Arabic speakers at least — the formation of the Arab Group for the Ethics of Science and Technology (ASEST) will help fill the gap.

Announcing the launch of ASEST on 10 October, Ismail Serageldin, director of Egypt's Bibliotheca Alexandrina said its work would include setting of ethical standards, capacity building, and raising awareness of ethical aspects of science and technology in the Arab world.

"ASEST will cooperate with UNESCO's World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology and Universal Movement For Scientific Responsibility to benefit from their vision and experiences," said Serageldin.

Mohammed Khalil Abdel-khalik, a medical professor at Cairo University and head of the genetic engineering committee of Egypt's National Council for Education, Scientific Research and Technology, told SciDev.Net that both GEO and ASEST will be important tools for scientists and policy-makers in the developing world.

"They will help regulate scientific and technological advances in the context of moral and ethical heritage and encourage South-South cooperation in ethical research," Abdel-khalik explained. "And they will enhance public awareness of scientific and technological ethical issues."

But Abdel-khalik warned that because the poor telecommunications infrastructure of many developing countries hampers people's ability to access online information, the electronic resources of GEO and ASEST should complement — not replace — printed materials.

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