An Ethical Code for Science

Recently there have been moves to develop an ethical code to help regulate science by The Council for Science and Technology (CST) is the UK government’s top-level advisory Body on Science and technology policy issues. The proposed code is based around a number of values:

Rigour, honesty and integrity

– act with skill and care in all scientific work. Maintain up-to-date skills and assist their development in others?
– take steps to prevent corrupt practices and professional misconduct. Declare conflicts of interest
– be alert to the ways in which research derives from and affects the work of other people, and respect the rights and reputations of others.

Respect for life, the law and the public good

– ensure that your work is lawful and justified
– minimise and justify any adverse effect your work may have on people, animals and the natural environment

Responsible communication: listening and informing

– seek to discuss the issues that science raises for society. Listen to the aspirations and concerns of others?
– do not knowingly mislead, or allow others to be misled, about scientific matters. Present and review scientific evidence, theory or interpretation honestly and accurately.

Public concern about science is considerable and not unjustified. People worry about genetic engineering, euthanasia and abortion. To what extent are scientists held to broadly agreed values? Believers with specific ethical systems might feel that science sometimes appears like a runaway train or a slippery slope. There is always something new coming around the corner, some new Frankensteinian creation or development.

This new ethical code might help to reduce that alarm. The values it refers to seem to connect with the ethical concerns that people have with the environment, seem to acknowledge animal rights issues, and includes basic ideas of justice, honesty, clarity and openness. It draws attention to the possible repercussions to others of the work and their rights, and adopts the minimum harm approach.

But perhaps there should also be an ethical code for the public, or at least an agreed rational code. To be prepared to listen and to try to understand what science is offering and how dependent we are on good scientific development, to be cautious about reacting emotively before considering the facts and be willing to accept that privately held moral views have to be argued for in a democratic society. The fact that I hold something to be sacred does not mean everyone must agree with me. Others who don’t agree should show some respect for my views but if they have good reason to reject them they have a responsibility to the greater good their work is in search of, to do so.

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