In Perspective: Modernising science’s social code

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A planned update of a 1974 UN document could create a useful template for socially responsible science, says David Dickson.

At the beginning of my career, I worked briefly for an organisation known as the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS), which promoted the idea that researchers should bear some responsibility for the way their science is used by society.


  • UNESCO plans to update recommendations on scientific ethics from 1974
  • The '74 document is still of value, particularly for nations at an early stage of scientific development
  • But it needs modernising, for example over gender equality and science communication

BSSRS was created in response to the increasing evidence of how the fruits of science — from nuclear weapons to chemical pesticides — were having socially damaging effects, and argued that scientists should shoulder some of the blame.

The difficulty was how to bridge the gap between well-meaning sentiments about the need for scientists to accept greater social responsibility and the practical steps needed to achieve this.

For example, the fact that many scientists worked for private companies or government departments — including ministries of defence — inevitably constrained their ability to express views about or influence how their science was being used.

This made the creation of socially responsible science a political task, not just a personal or an institutional one.

Scientific code

I have been reminded about all this by a debate within UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) on whether to update a set of recommendations originally approved in 1974 — the period when BSSRS flourished — in a document entitled 'Recommendation on the Status of Scientific Researchers'. [1]

Their potential revision will be discussed at a meeting of UNESCO's World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology in Bratislava, Slovakia, next week.

The decision to explore whether to update the 1974 Recommendation was taken after efforts to draw up an international code of ethics for scientists reached stalemate. The code was intended to build on existing codes of ethics in the life sciences, for example the 2005 Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights.

UNESCO member states have now agreed that, rather than starting from scratch with a new document, progress is likely to be faster if the 1974 Recommendation is updated.

Still relevant

There is a strong case for confirming the continued relevance of the 1974 document. In particular, it not only codifies the goals and value systems by which science operates, but also emphasises that these need to be supported and protected if science is to flourish.

The Recommendation also indicates how, in principle, this can be achieved. For example, it stresses the importance of two issues: the need to ensure the free circulation of scientific data and the need to provide scientists with adequate financial and institutional support.

The document continues to have a particular value today for developing countries at an early stage in building up their scientific skills and institutions. For these, it provides a useful checklist of political and institutional requirements.

All this might suggest that the existing document is adequate for current issues in science ethics and policy. But the case for breathing new life into it is equally strong.

For example, the original document says little about the need for gender equality — scientists are invariably referred to as male. Nor does it properly reflect how science has become increasingly embedded in the functioning of market economies, with the additional competitive pressures on scientists that this can bring, some of which have been blamed for a growth in the risk of fraud and misconduct.

Areas of science that have potential 'dual use' — those that can lead to new technologies or information with potential for both benevolent and malevolent applications — such as genetic technologies that have the potential of being used for new types of biological weapons, have also grown considerably over the past 40 years, causing inevitable dilemmas for the researchers involved.

Perhaps the biggest challenge will be in modifying the somewhat hubristic tone in which the 1974 Recommendation was written.

At the time, as I remember well, many scientists felt that it was science itself — and not just its lack of social responsibility — that was coming under attack. Their response was to emphasise that, while science should serve society, this could best be done by leaving it essentially in the hands of an enlightened scientific community.

Cultural changes

One of the big changes in the intervening 40 years has been the growing recognition that this is not the whole answer. Full public engagement with science is also required to ensure its goals coincide with those of the society that supports it through state funding of research.

Science communication, still in its infancy when the 1974 Recommendation was written, now plays an important part in mediating the relationship between science and society, and ensuring that this alignment occurs.

And part of scientists' social responsibility today is to engage in this process, for example by making themselves available to journalists and participating in public discussions about scientific priorities — as well as the potential dangers that scientific development can bring.

The 1974 Recommendation needs to be revised in a way that fully absorbs this new perspective, on top of the other areas mentioned above.

If it can be, then the resulting document — which, it is hoped, all UNESCO member states will eventually approve — could become a powerful template for a socially responsible science for the 21st century.

David Dickson

David Dickson is a science journalist who has worked on the staffs of Nature, Science and New Scientist, specialising in reporting on science policy. He was the founding director of SciDev.Net 2001–2011.