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Commission seeks to 'blow the whistle' on unethical decisions

13 May 1999

[LONDON] The role of Unesco's newly created Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) is to "blow the whistle", according to its director-general, Vidgís Finnbogadóttir, speaking after the close of its first meeting in Oslo last month.

A main theme at the meeting was the ethics of the information society. Finnbogadóttir, a former president of Iceland, says it is apparent that very little work had been done in this area, even though "the ethical issues are very clear".

"A greater part of the world does not have access [to information technology], and this alienates them and widens the gap between those who have knowledge and those who do not," she says. "The expense of technology deprives many people -- this is unethical."

Finnbogadóttir says that COMEST's mission is to identify problems and find a voice: "We want to define the most burning issues and get the attention of decision-makers."

The Earl of Selbourne, who chaired a session on ethics and fresh water management, says of the meeting: "one can be cynical about these exercises, but some good people were brought together." In addition to 17 of the 18 members of COMEST present, Selbourne estimates that about 90 people attended the event - including representatives of non-governmental organizations. "Whether we advanced the agenda was not clear," he says. "The purpose was to provide a focus of conversation in one of the sessions at Budapest."

Selbourne is keen to emphasize the "very important contribution" by host country, Norway. "They have done a lot of work on ethical issues around country, ensuring that scientists, politicians, and users, discuss ethics, and make available issues of the implementation of technology to as many focus groups as possible," he says. "I was impressed that Norway have decided that there is responsibility for scientists and those who fund science to consult more widely and share information."

During the opening sessions a number of presentations were made on the work of Norwegian institutions working in the field of ethics of science and technology. Dagfinn Føllesdal, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oslo and at Stanford University (USA), discussed the Norwegian Research Council's ethics programme, which he chairs. This programme, said Føllesdal, is working to build up ethical competence within Norway to better enable the country to "meet the many ethical challenges our society faces, challenges which are likely to grow in extent and complexity in the years ahead."

One of the programme's aims is to provide 25 people with competence at the doctoral level in basic ethics and in subject-specific ethics. Those recruited to the subject specific ethics program are expected to already have a doctorate or similar competence, and will then go on to take a second doctorate in ethics.

Føllesdal explained that this 'double competence' is important to adequately dealing with issues in an area where information is needed to judge "possible alternatives and the probabilities of the various consequences that are crucial for the ethical discussion."

"One has to know ethics well enough to be aware of crucial distinctions and considerations that make the difference between good and bad arguments," said Føllesdal. "Without such double competence, scientists tend to think that ethics is a matter of expressing one's convictions, and ethicists tend to present arguments and considerations that have little bearing on the real issues."

The research council's ethics programme, which started in 1991, allocates research grants and currently has about 40 associated, fully paid and partly paid grantees, half of whom are working on doctoral projects.

Another key topic raised at the meeting was the issue of irreversible impact on the environment, such as the depletion of resources or the destruction of a landscape. Citing a case in Norway in which the building of a hydropower station had created local flooding, Vidgís Finnbogadóttir said that COMEST aimed to such poor ethical decisions to the attention of ordinary citizens.

She emphasizes that problems outlined during the Oslo meeting will be ongoing issues, and that COMEST wukk continue to serve its function by issuing regular opinions. A report on its mission and activities will be presented to the World Conference on Science in Budapest in June.


For further details of Unesco's World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology, click here

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