Who Gets to Decide a Scientific Code of Ethics?
Sir David King does, apparently. In this BBC article, an effort by Sir King (Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government) outlines a code of ethics for scientists. The code is constructed out of the following seven points.
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
Certainly sounds like a good list. It’s full of common sense, and several points seem to already be well incorporated into how the scientific community operates. “Respect and acknowledge the work of other scientists”, for example, is already built into the concept of citation and peer review. Both concepts are included for practical reasons, so tacking them on as ethical considerations seems like an easy thing to do. Likewise, there are very practical reasons for conducting lawful research (it’s hard to continue a career following a felony conviction) and keeping skills up to date.
Unfortunately, (as has been pointed out by at Adventures in Ethics and Science) these ethical guidelines probably won’t have much effect. The idea of a universal scientific code of ethics for scientists is a good idea, but one developed in the terms of policy talking points sounds like one doomed to have little practical impact.
Let’s look at King’s example, as quoted in the article:
“Place yourself in the position of a scientist who works for a tobacco company, and the company asks you to counter evidence about the health impacts of tobacco.
“That scientist would be able to look at the code and say, ‘I can’t do that’.”
I’m fairly confident that, as it stands, the scientists employed by tobacco companies can already say that they follow a code of ethics with a straight face. It’s probably included in Phillip-Morris’ mission statement. In fact, let’s take a look at that mission statement:
Our mission is to be the most responsible, effective and respected developer, manufacturer and marketer of consumer products, especially products intended for adults. Our core business is manufacturing and marketing the best quality tobacco products to adults who use them.
Well, damn. It sounds like the tobacco companies already have a code of ethics. Their mission is to be “responsible” and “effective”, and only manufacture and market” tobacco products to adults who use them.” Why would a company like that ask a scientist to blatantly violate a scientific code of ethics like Sir King’s? And why would a scientist who swore up and down to Sir King’s code of ethics agree to do such a thing, if asked?
Probably because, with a certain amount of talking, they could find a justification for doing so. What if (to borrow a banner waived with fervor by the ID movement), the scientist decided to do research about how tobacco might not have some of the harmful effects ascribed to it in the name of intellectual freedom? The public and the scientific community say one thing, but they might be wrong! They might be doing the wrong tests! How sure are people, anyway, about those statistics linking increased probability of lung cancer to cigarette addiction? It’s possible surely, that all these studies have been conducted in a manner unfair to the tobacco industry. Based on this, wouldn’t Phillip-Morris say that they would have a moral mandate to conduct new research? And conduct it until they got the results they wanted?
Seven bullet points does not a compelling code of ethics make. People do not perform unethical research merely because nobody has yet come along and outlined a code of ethics for them. People perform unethical research before, during, and after reading ethical theory with far more universal, convincing, and thorough arguments than “science would be better if someone proposed a universal code of ethics.” And I do not doubt that people with a copy of Sir King’s code on their wall will, before long, do something that violates the spirit of the text.
What, then, would give it some teeth? A better argument for why scientists should follow this particular code (or any code) would be a good start. Unfortunately, arguments like that are difficult to create and generate far less publicity than the announcement of the UK’s Chief Science Adviser