At least, for scientists in the UK.
The BBC reports that the chief scientific advisor to the British government, Professor Sir David King, has set out an ethics code of “seven principles aimed at building trust between scientists and society”.
The seven principles:
- Act with skill and care, keep skills up to date
- Prevent corrupt practice and declare conflicts of interest
- Respect and acknowledge the work of other scientists
- Ensure that research is justified and lawful
- Minimise impacts on people, animals and the environment
- Discuss issues science raises for society
- Do not mislead; present evidence honestly
The BBC says:
The aim, [King] said, was to outline responsibilities and values in order to encourage researchers to reflect on the impact their work would have on wider society. …
The code has been adopted by scientists working in the UK government – and Professor King has invited researchers in UK universities and industry to join them. Next year it will be launched internationally.
The idea was swiftly backed by Lib Dem science spokesman Dr Evan Harris.
“The seven points in this code are part of what separates researchers from charlatans, medicine from quackery and science from supposition,” he said.
They seem like quite sensible principles — so sensible, in fact, that you might ask why they need to be formalized in a code of ethics. Don’t scientists already know that they should be honest, be fair to their fellow scientists, avoid conflicts of interest, keep up with the literature in their field, and all that good stuff?
Surely they do, but we’ve noted before that knowing what you ought to do and actually doing it are two different things. The question then becomes, how exactly does having a code of ethics help?
Professor King mentions a couple tangible ways that a recognized code of ethics might help. If an employer asked a scientist-employee to advance a claim counter to good evidence, the scientist-employee could say, “Boss, I’d love to help, but my hands are tied by this code.” Also, King suggests that having an explicit code will remind scientists of their relationship to the larger society.
But don’t scientists already know that what they do has implications for the public? Certainly, they know that a minimal level of public support is necessary for the public monies that support scientific research.
What do you think the effects of adopting such a code will (or could) be for scientists in the UK? Do you see any of the seven points in the code as problematic? Do you think there are any important ethical requirements on scientists that should be in the code but are not captured by the seven points?