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Ethics, science and society debated in Quebec City

The World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) recently organized an Extraordinary session in Quebec City, Canada, from 1 to 3 October 2014. Chaired by Mr Rajaona Andriamananjara (Madagascar), it was hosted by the government of Quebec, the Commission on Ethics of Science and Technology of Quebec, and Laval University. The meeting was also supported by the Government of Canada, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, and the “Fonds de recherché” of Quebec.

The session allowed the Commission, of which half of its current members are newly appointed, to advance on the development of two reports: the first on the relationship between science and society, and the second on an ethical framework for climate change. The latter is particularly challenging as it implies finding common ethical grounds for very controversial issues, and aims to provide policy makers with ethical tools to deliver policies that will promote practices that protect the environment today and in the future. It also addresses the dimensions of adaptation and mitigation to climate change.

Secondly, COMEST continued its reflection on the revision of the UNESCO Recommendation on the Status of Scientific Researchers (1974). The Recommendation, which was intended to establish guidelines for the obligations between scientific researchers and society, was developed at a time when there was great tension surrounding the concepts of academic freedom and the open communication of scientific research. Given changes in the geopolitical, economic and cultural context of research, and the fact that research is now often conducted across borders and at an international level, it has become necessary to rethink the approach to defining the mutual obligation between scientific researchers and society.

Some of the ideas already expressed by COMEST in this regard, are the basis for developing the report on the relationship between science and society. New scientific and technological innovations may produce new risks of ethically undesirable consequences, whether intended or unintended, and public distrust of science in reaction to these new developments.

Therefore the question is: how can the revision of the 1974 Recommendation address the challenge of finding a right balance between the need to ensure public participation on ethical issues of scientific research, and controversial new technologies and scientific competence ? The possibility that new technologies might, through deliberate use or accidental release, cause serious and irreversible harm calls for new forms of vigilance. The Chairs of the International Bioethics Committee (IBC), ex officio member of COMEST, and the Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee, shared their views on this topic that were expressed during the joint meeting of the two Committees held early September 2014 in Paris.

COMEST, the IBC and the IGBC will also develop further collaboration on the theme of “Global Justice”.

Other topics discussed were:

  • Scientific integrity;
  • Converging technologies in the context of their contribution to sustainable development in the post-2015 agenda;
  • The need to address global inequalities through ethical governance of science and technology. Very lively discussions took place on such topics as alternative ways of drafting codes of conduct, alternative ways of engaging civil society in the governance of science, and the different approaches and definitions of converging technologies, among many others.

COMEST will meet again for an ordinary session in the second half of 2015.