Knowledge for Development

Ethics in science for development

Author: Prof. Michiel Korthals, Head of Department Applied Philosophy, Wageningen University, The Netherlands

Date: 28/07/2008


Should scientists contribute to research that improves the conversion of food crops into biofuels, if they know that in the short term this will lead to an increase in hunger? Should researchers work on developing non-sustainable irrigation projects that provide short term relief but do not address the real needs of communities for water for sustaining agricultural production? Should scientists conduct experiment trials with new foods and drugs using human subjects in poor countries where the policy, regulatory and legislative frameworks governing such trials do not exist?


Should researchers publish research results which provide little information for others to build on the knowledge to advance future endeavours? Should researchers strive to patent their results when doing so may limit the availability as a public good? The dilemmas of researchers listed previously, concern research priorities, experimenting, publishing and patenting. Researchers in developing countries, like their colleagues in the north are confronted with these ethical dilemmas. In all cases conflicting interests, norms and values are at stake, which require ethical reflection.

Since the Second World War researchers have been increasingly confronted with a range of ethical problems and dilemmas. They struggle with the ethical acceptability of the relationship between private and public research and their combination; they question the patenting systems. Moreover, it became clear even in science, fraud, and careerist individuals could distort the trust normally people have in science. Controversies which arise over research, like genetic modification, or research with controversial aims such as the development of seeds with the GURT (Genetic Use Restriction Technology) gene or accepting research funding from certain organizations which have vested interests in the outcomes, attract the attention of policy makers and civil society alike. In general, the research priorities of scientists are criticized by many and often it is expected of science to reduce the gap between poor and rich countries.

Ethics in research cannot resolve all these problems, but at least can provide researchers with some tools to respond to these dilemmas. It is often said that science is objective and ethics, which is linked to personal choices, is subjective. But a closer look makes it clear that there are ethical values which must be adopted in the pursuit of science. Moreover, research priorities and research agendas incorporate values of what is seen by research managers as worthwhile. Even in the selection of materials and methods and the products of sciences are values incorporated, especially as they relate to the impact on society.

One can distinguish between the ethics of research priorities, of doing research and of making the results public. Research priorities and research agendas determine the future of research by selecting scientific and technological pathways that cannot often not easily changed. Very often research for e.g. crops is done of which the results can only be used by large international companies and not by small cropholders. Here is the notion of fair and equitable justice at stake. In doing research on and experimenting with humans and animals, the experimenter must try to diminish as much as possible the possible harm inflicted of the subjects. Moreover, full transparency is needed in communicating the intricacies of the experiment before it starts. After the experiment, it is ethical obligatory to report back to the experimented subjects.

Science can only flourish in openness, under democratic circumstances and in a context where there is equality in terms of access to resources. Where there are large disparities in access and capacity, countries and by extension their scientists run the risk that interesting and vital or ground-breaking research cannot be conducted, evidence is ignored or suppressed or not taken seriously. In science, evidence matters most and suppressing data, that may be extremely valuable especially in the fight against hunger and malnutrition, without good reasons cannot be justified. With respect to patenting of research results, this is quite a complex issue. Originally, the patenting system sought to stimulate inventions by honoring the inventor, but nowadays the system is hampering science because it makes it difficult to work and 'freedom to operate as a scientist' is compromised due to the fact that often before the research can start the patent rights would have had to be acquired. Moreover, it makes it more difficult for the poorer countries to perform research especially as funds for conducting research are limited.

Introduction of new products of science e.g. foods produced through nanotechnology may also raise ethical questions governing health and safety and again, scientists have a social responsibility to factor all related concerns in the design and communication of the research.

To tackle these ethical dilemmas, it is advisable to make a list of all the potential issues and the concerned parties involved and determine the priorities, urgency and relevance and strategies for addressing the issues. Secondly, in interaction with colleagues, and other interested parties embark on ethical reasoning: what are the special interests and conflicts? Are rights to be observed? Are the consequences very severe? The decision, thirdly, can consist of one decision, a postponement, or finding solutions that satisfy the various parties or as many as possible. Finally concern must be shown for the losers of the final decision; as researchers should not be satisfied by thinking that taking a decision with a “clean” conscience is the final answer. Lessons can be learned from the length of time it is taking for genetically modified foods to gain wide-spread public acceptance.

This four step scheme can help in improving researchers’ ethical standards and skills, but communicating with the persons involved is always the best approach for avoiding possible conflicts.


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Korthals, M., 2004, Do We Need Berlin Walls or Chinese Walls between Research, Public Consultation, and Advice? New Public Responsibilities for Life Scientists, Journal of Academic Ethics, 1, 4, pp. 385-395

Korthals, M., and R. Bogers (eds.), 2005, Ethics for Life Sciences, Springer, Dordrecht

Resnik, D., 1998, The Ethics of Science, London: Routledge