About Ethics in R&I

By project coordinator prof. dr. Philip Brey

Introduction to ethical assessment of research and innovation

Ethics assessment, or ethical assessment, refers to the identification and evaluation of ethical issues in research and innovation.  The SATORI project brings together two existing traditions in ethics:  research ethics, which is the ethical reflection on scientific practice, and technology ethics, which is the ethical study of technology, engineering, and innovation.

The aim of ethics assessment is to identify and evaluate ethical issues and problems in scientific research and innovation practices, and to make recommendations and policy proposals to make research and innovation more ethical and responsible.  Ethics assessment covers a wide range of ethical issues, for example, issues regarding scientific integrity, fraud and misconduct, the rights of human subjects in research, the ethical uses of animals in research, responsible product design, responsibility for health and environmental impacts, and protection of privacy and civil rights.

Ethics, in our understanding, is the systematic reflection on right and wrong conduct according to norms and values that we think should be adhered to as we strive to build a just and orderly society. An ethical aspect of some phenomenon is, in the context intended here, an aspect that raises ethical questions: whether its implications are sufficiently in line with our considered moral values, and whether or not it raises an ethical or moral dilemma: an apparent conflict between two moral principles or norms that somehow should be resolved.

Ethics assessment of research and innovation is performed by many different organizations and individuals, for example:

  • Research Ethics Committees at research institutions
  • National Ethics Committees that provide policy advice to governments
  • Research funding organizations that screen ethical issues in research proposals before giving out funding
  • Corporations, as part of their corporate social responsibility activities
  • National science academies and professional academic organizations that set ethical standards for their field
  • Non-governmental / civil society organizations that take a position on research and innovation practices that concern them (e.g., environmental organizations, consumer groups)

A core aim of the SATORI project is to develop a common framework, common approaches and best practices to help unite and improve ethical assessment across the diversity of the field.

Special attention will be paid in the project on the ethical assessment of impacts of research and innovation: societal, health, and environmental impacts, including impacts that concern freedoms, rights, and the just distribution of opportunities, risks, and resources.  Because of this focus on impacts, ethical assessment as we study it borders up to and even overlaps with a range of other assessment forms including technology assessment, social impact assessment, and environmental impact assessment. The overlaps between these types of assessment stem from a common concern with the responsible development of research and innovation, and the differences should therefore not be overstated. Rather, ethical assessment should be seen as one among a range of reflexive practices, which must serve to guide decision making within and around research and innovation.