Interview with Édith Deleury, President of the Commission on Ethics of Science and Technology of Quebec

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© UNESCO

From 1 to 2 October 2014, the 8th Extraordinary Session of the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) took place in Quebec, Canada. On this occasion, Ms Édith Deleury, President of the Commission on Ethics of Science and Technology (CEST) of Quebec, gave her views on ethical issues related to science for sustainable development.

Now more than ever, ethics of science are at the centre of public attention. According to you, how can this be explained? And what ethical issues are of most concern to Quebec society?

Since the last decades, science and technology have known enormous developments. While they contribute to improving the human condition, they also, in the same time overthrow our established beliefs. Constantly changing our ability to act on nature and on ourselves, science and technology pose new challenges, challenges to which there are no easy answers. Certainly, ethical reflection is not new, but the scale of the transformative power which science and technology make possible requires us to engage in new ethical reflection, taking into account the values and the ways of thinking that guide us.

The issues of concern for the Quebec society in the area of ethics of science are substantially the same as those which are on the agenda of COMEST and, in relation to some, of IBC*. One can mention, among other questions, the challenges raised by access to energy, its production methods, its exploitation and its use and the requirements with which they should be reconciled in the context of sustainable development. The development of nanotechnology and its applications in the areas that affect us all, such as health care or the food industry is another matter of concern for Quebec. Finally, modern developments in the area of genomics, thanks to the high-volume sequencing technologies, and the deployment of personalized medicine raise, too, their own set of ethical issues. In fact, the Commission on Ethics of Science and Technology of Quebec recently devoted an opinion on these issues.

It is for the first time that COMEST holds its session in North America. What does it represent for the Commission on Ethics of Science and Technology of Quebec to host this year’s meeting?

It is extremely important to us. Considering our roles and our respective missions as Ethics Committees of scientific knowledge, at the international level for COMEST, and at the national level for CEST, it is essential to be able to build bridges, to forge links between our two organizations, to share our thoughts and to make known our work. It is important, in this regard, to underscore that the Commission on Ethics of Science and Technology of Quebec is the only institution of its kind in Canada and that there are not many equivalent organizations around the world.

COMEST has identified in its “Report on Ethical Issues of Science Governance and Science-Society Nexus” identifies the problem of public participation, including on complex and controversial issues of science and new technologies, as a key issue to ensure public support for the development of science. What is the Commission of Quebec’s point of view on this matter?

The issue of public involvement in such complicated issues is essential. But it is also a complex issue. The Commission, for its part, and also taking into account the means at its disposal, has relied on information, raising public awareness. To this end, it organizes debates on current ethical issues and conferences for the general public. It has also set up a Youth Commission in order to reach coming generations. Finally, as part of the preparation of its opinions, in some cases, it holds hearings and organizes online consultations.

COMEST has been invited to contribute to the revision of the 1974 Recommendation on the Status of Scientific Researchers which is one the major issues that has been debated at the Extraordinary Session in Quebec. What is the position of the Commission of Quebec with regard to the revision of this instrument?

The 1974 Recommendation is, in many ways, obsolete. Indeed, since then, the situation has changed. Globalization and the tools offered by information and communication technologies have completely changed the researcher's work. A researcher today works more and more in a team, not only nationally, but often also internationally. The financing arrangements involve partnerships between the public and private sector, which raises the question of freedom of research and that, also, of management of conflicts of interest. New ethical issues have emerged, such as access to scientific knowledge, dissemination and use of research results, the protection and recognition of traditional knowledge, protection of the right to autonomy and to the protection of private life of research participants. These examples are far from exhaustive. The list could be extended. But it is the spirit in which the revision is required which, I believe, is the most important: that of the sharing, solidarity, respect for future generations and hence of the environment and of the inherent dignity of a human person.

The knowledge divide, especially in the areas of new technologies, is an obstacle to sustainable development. What should be the response of the scientific community to this challenge from the ethical point of view?

My answer to this question is that we must transcend the borders, work in a cross-disciplinary and cross-sectorial manner. All disciplines must be included. It is not only a dialogue between basic and applied sciences, on one hand, and the humanities and social sciences, on the other, but between all disciplines regardless of the domain to which they are attached.

* International Bioethics Committee (IBC)