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Natural sciences

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Technical and natural science research is of many sorts and evokes many different ethical questions. When research involves humans, the traditional human-focused research ethic is relevant, not least reflected in the SFS 2003:460 Act concerning the Ethical Review of Research Involving Humans, which applies to all research fields. The law is applicable to, among other areas, research that is conducted using a method the aim of which is to affect the subject physically or psychologically, as well as studies on biological material traceable to a specific person. Fundamental is that research be approved only if it can be performed with respect for human dignity and that human rights and basic freedoms are considered at all times during the ethical examination. Human welfare is to be given precedence over the needs of society and science. According to the law, applications for ethical examination of research are to be considered by regional ethics boards.

By a change of the Act effectuated 2008, the definition of research is clarified so that the activities subject to review is defined. Research is now understood to be scientific experimental or theoretical work to gain new knowledge, and developmental work on scientific grounds, but not such work performed at undergraduate level at universities. Also, the definition of handling personal data is redefined. Research involving handling of certain personal data shall from now on be examined regardless of whether research subjects give their informed consent or not. Research that clearly involves a risk of harming subjects, it can be interviews or surveys for example, shall likewise be ethically examined.

Consequences of research

However, the ethical questions that have most often been in focus for research within these fields have concerned the consequences of research (whereas research on humans has most often brought questions concerning integrity and autonomy). It is often intended that the researcher take voluntary responsibility for these issues, and it is therefore often appeals and codes or professional ethics guidelines that formulate the scientist's ethical obligations. An example is the Engineering Code of Ethics [Hederskodex]. We also find, for example, a Hippocratic Oath for Scientists, Engineers, and Executives and Guidelines for Professional Conduct from the American Physical Society. Sometimes the discussion can lead to a moratorium being created, as in the case of geo-engineering.

The Toronto Resolution provides a framework for the preparation of each discipline's own ethical code. The most well-known code is perhaps the Uppsala Code, which has been suggested by, for instance, the ICSU (International Council for Science) as a possible foundation for the creation of future international guidelines (Science and Engineering Ethics vol. 6:1, Jan 2000). A comprehensive work in UNESCO's and ICSU's 1999 World Conference on Science in Budapest led to the outline Science Agenda - Framework for Action. An internationally acclaimed code for science and technology is the Norwegian Guidelines for research ethics in science and technology.

The example of nanotechnology

The question may also concern the long-term health consequences that new techniques bring. One example is nanotechnology, which poses the risk that engineered and perhaps unintentionally released nanoparticles (which because of their small size may be highly toxic) enter the human body. In Sweden, SMER has given an opinion. The European Commission has raised concerns and started a discussion on nanotechnology that has resulted in a report, "Nanotechnologies", including 12 recommendations. Since then a First Implementation Report 2005-2007 and a suggested Code of conduct for responsible nanotech research have been issued. The EU Commission has since presented 7 principles, based on the code. Now EU legislation is possibly expected (see European Parliament resolution on regulatory aspects of nanomaterials and Säker användning av nanomaterial – behov av reglering och andra åtgärder from The Swedish Chemical Inspectorate). Today European nanotech research is regulated by the framework in place for chemicals, REACH. See also e.g. UNESCO's The Ethics and Politics of Nanotechnology, Nanotechnologies and ethics: policies and actions from COMEST and policy briefing no 23 Scientific Forward Look on Nanomedicine, from the European Science Foundation. How to safety test nanoproducts is described in OECD's List of Manufactered Nanomaterials... Another recent area of concern is synthetic biology: see From Understanding to Action: Community-Based Options for Improving Safety and Security in Synthetic Biology.

Some other areas of concern

These codes often raise questions regarding the researcher's own responsibility for the execution of the research. A number of cases of misconduct in research have received attention in recent years, not least concerning questions about publishing research results. There are also naturally numerous specific laws that regulate research in various fields; far too many to be listed here. To offer an example, certain research should heed the law on protection from radiation (SFS 1988:220 - Radiation Protection Act) as well as the corresponding ordinance (SFS 1988:293). It is every researcher's duty to become familiar with the laws that regulate his or her work.

An area that has more recently been the object of much debate is space research. A discussion over a longer period of time in the EU led to a European Space Policy. Further comments have come via publications such as the European Science Foundation's Policy Briefing no. 22 ["Statement on the green..."].

Last updated: 2013-12-09

Rules & guidelines

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CODEX, Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics, BMC, Husarg. 3, Uppsala | Webmaster | About the web site