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World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST)

The World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology COMEST* is an advisory body and forum of reflection that was set up by UNESCO in 1998. 

The Commission is composed of eighteen leading scholars from scientific, legal, philosophical, cultural and political disciplines from various regions of the world, appointed by the UNESCO Director-General in their individual capacity, along with eleven ex officio members representing UNESCO's international science programmes and global science communities.

The Commission is mandated to formulate ethical principles that could provide decision-makers with criteria that extend beyond purely economic considerations.

COMEST works in several areas: environmental ethics, with reference inter alia to climate change, biodiversity, water and disaster prevention; the ethics of nanotechnologies along with related new and emerging issues in converging technologies; ethical issues relating to the technologies of the information society; science ethics; and gender issues in ethics of science and technology.

Since its inception in 1998, the functioning of COMEST has been guided by its Statutes adopted by the UNESCO Executive Board at its 154th session.

* Acronym taken from the French name 'Commission mondiale d’éthique des connaissances scientifiques et des technologies'.

What are COMEST's tasks?

  • To advise the Organization on its programme concerning the ethics of scientific knowledge and technology;
  • To be an intellectual forum for the exchange of ideas and experience;
  • To detect on that basis the early signs of risk situations;
  • To perform the role of adviser to decision-makers in this respect;
  • To promote dialogue between scientific communities, decision-makers and the public at large.

 

How are COMEST members chosen?

The Director-General appoints the 18 COMEST members to serve for four-year terms in their personal capacities. The Commission members are chosen from among eminent personalities in the fields of science, professional engineering, law, philosophy, culture, religion or politics. Due account is taken of geographical distribution and coverage of the various disciplines and schools of thought. At each ordinary session, the Commission elects a President, two vice-Presidents and a Rapporteur, who form the Bureau of COMEST.

 

Who can participate in or attend COMEST sessions?

  • Member States and Associate Members of UNESCO may participate as observers in the meetings of the Commission;
  • States which are not members of UNESCO, but members of the United Nations system organizations, may participate as observers in the Commission’s meetings at the invitation of the Director-General;
  • The United Nations and the other organizations of the United Nations system with which UNESCO has concluded mutual representation agreements may participate as observers in the Commission’s meetings;
  • The Commission defines, in agreement with the Director-General, the conditions under which other intergovernmental and international non-governmental organizations with similar purposes to those of the Commission may be invited to attend its debates.

 

Orientation

UNESCO’s activities in the ethics of science and technology are especially centred on the implementation of the orientation given to COMEST since the 32nd General Conference. The orientation has three dimensions.

  • First it aims at bringing the global debate to the regional level, creating better connections with the scientific community and focussing on the issues that are pertinent to specific regions. The 3rd session of COMEST in Rio de Janeiro in December 2003 inaugurated this approach.
  • It aims at delivering particular and timely products to the Member States, especially through standard-setting activities. In the decisions taken at its 169th session, the Executive Board requested the Director-General, with the advice of COMEST, to undertake studies on the advisability of drafting an international instrument on the ethics of outer space and on an international declaration on science ethics that could serve as a basis for an ethical code of conducts for scientists, as well as on possible international action in the field of environmental ethics.
  • Finally, it aims at applying such standards into the scientific and policy communities, creating awareness of the ethical issues and building capacities to deal with them appropriately. Special emphasis is placed on the importance of teaching of ethics in scientific education.

 

Work Programme for 2018-2019

Based on the discussions during the 10th Session of the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (Paris, September 2017), the Bureau of COMEST finalized in September 2017 the work programme of the Commission for 2018-2019 as follows:

  • The Commission will continue to develop its reflection on “water ethics: ocean, freshwater, coastal areas”, with the participation of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) and International Hydrological Programme (IHP), aiming to finalize this work by this biennium.
  • The Commission will also address the topic of the Internet of Things (IoT), reflecting on the ethical considerations of IoT in relation to society, science and sustainability. This work will build on the Commission’s recently finalized report on robotics ethics, with the participation of the Communication and Information Sector of UNESCO.

The Commission will remain open to addressing other emerging challenges related to the ethics of science and technology during the 2018-2019 biennium.

 

Bureau

During its 11th (Ordinary) Session, COMEST proceeded with the election of its Bureau: a Chairperson, two Vice-Chairpersons and a Rapporteur, who will remain in office until the end of the 12th (Ordinary) Session in 2021, provided that they remain members of the Commission. 

The following members were elected to the Bureau:

Chairperson

  • Mr Peter-Paul Verbeek (Netherlands)

Rapporteur

  • Mr Tomislav Bracanović (Croatia)

Vice-chairpersons

  • Mr Zabta K. Shinwari (Pakistan)
  • Ms Grace Sirju-Charran (Trinidad and Tobago)