Section 8: Cost-Effectiveness and Risk-Benefit of Ethics Assessment

This section outlines how to conceptualise and implement cost-effectiveness and risk-benefit evaluation of ethics assessment and ethics guidance in relation to European research and innovation (R&I). The findings are based on research consisting of a literature review, expert and stakeholder interviews, several case studies, and an interdisciplinary expert workshop. Included in these recommendations are ‘red flags’ about the limits of applicability of cost-effectiveness and risk-benefit analysis to the practice of ethics assessment:

  • It is impossible in principle to make exact comparisons of the cost-effectiveness of different purely conceptual approaches to ethical assessment, since the costs, risks, effects, and benefits of ethics assessment are only determinable in concrete cases where such concepts have been implemented. This is due to the empirically observed differences that exist between ethics assessment practices in different organization in terms of goals, mandates, and impacts; even where basic assessment concepts are largely similar.
  • Even superficially identical assessment approaches may have very different effectiveness parameters, which depend not only on the assessment practice itself, but also on the effectiveness follow-up mechanisms such as risk management and value-chain management, and thus cannot be reliably compared in terms of monetary or otherwise quantified costs.
  • Adopting a cost-effectiveness perspective on ethics assessment should not lead to a narrow focus on operational costs, nor should it allow itself to be bogged down by the willingness-to-accept of those R&I actors who are subjected (or subject themselves) to ethics assessment. The cost-effectiveness perspective should not be divorced from a broader risk-benefit perspective.


The cost of ethics assessment and the risk of missed opportunities that it entails should be weighed against the medium-term risk of ethical breaches (violating absolute values) and stakeholder backlash from such breaches (causing economic losses) as well as the long-term benefits from ethically appropriate research and innovation (which is, however, undocumented). With regard to the management of medium-term risks, ethics interventions are best understood as elements of ethics programs that also include leadership commitment, ethics training, ethics hotlines, and other similar interventions. The operational costs are ‘proactive prevention costs’ integral to good risk management and should be weighed against ‘reactive non-compliance costs’ and the risks they represent to the R&I individual organization.

Ethics assessment is generally held to lower the risk of undesirable social consequences from R&I, but also to entail a risk of missed opportunities. On their own, individual interventions such as ethics assessment or guidance may at best be moderately effective in preventing ethical lapses in organizations. When implemented as part of organisation-wide ethics programs, even interventions that have no measurable effect on their own contribute to the cumulative effectiveness of the program as a whole towards creating a ‘culture of ethics’ with a high significance for the prevention of ethical lapses. Most types of organizations that implement ethics assessment see the practice as intrinsically valuable. Industries and businesses also appear to regard ethical assessment as a valuable addition to risk management.


The scientific literature indicates that the cost of gathering data for quantified analysis of ethics assessment would in itself be highly cost-inefficient. The scientific literature also indicates that the costs associated with stakeholder backlash on unethical practices, unacceptable outcomes, or unintended impacts of R&I are disproportionately large in comparison with the costs of ethics assessment, which makes ethics assessment. Rather than focusing on the cost-effectiveness of ethics assessment and other types of ethics interventions, current practice is to focus on raising the quality of ethics assessment while staying within acceptable costs levels (with no strong link having been established between the two).