The purpose of life sciences is to provide better solutions for a more sustainable society in the future. Recent technological developments in fields such as environmental engineering and synthetic biology, and the growing number of advances in robotic manufacture, pharmacy, medicine, biotechnology, chemical engineering, agriculture and energy sectors, call for the implementation of robust and widespread ethical practises to overcome the many obstacles and the potential conflicts of interest among all these different target groups.
While the foundation of bioethics was once a question for philosophers, bioethics in the modern world requires a multidisciplinary approach, with potential collaborations among many different areas of study, including social sciences, bioscience, politics, sociology and many others. Due to technological advancements, life scientists are now facing bioethical dilemmas on a daily basis, with potentially no easy answers.
Bioethics consists of identifying the emerging moral issues related to human health and biological systems, and analysing them in accordance to changing moral standards and the value systems of the community as a whole. As our understanding of bioscience advances, such questions will become an increasingly fundamental aspect for all life science applications, and bioethics will be the primary tool to help resolve potential conflicts, where those with opposing perceptions and values need to be able to find common ground. However, ethical aspects become particularly challenging during emergencies, like the one posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, when human lives are threatened and society turns to science for quick solutions. How do we balance the need for fast progress in the development of much needed solutions, and the requirements for sound scientific advances?
In this regard, bioethics, while striving to meet societal needs, should address two key aspects. First is the research ethics, valid for any research area. This includes issues such as scientific integrity, resolving conflicts of interest, equality, authorship, etc. On the other hand, specific ethical issues emerge in the field of biosciences, such as the use of human cells, animals in clinical studies and research, or the use of genetic engineering technologies. These issues have to be addressed in a responsible way in order to make research safe, reliable and acceptable.
The first step towards good ethical practises is awareness on the emerging ethical issues among scientists themselves, and establishing functional ethical policies at research institutions. The University of Primorska has recognised the advantages and possibilities that arise from introducing ethical policies that are specifically tailored to life sciences. In the last 4 years, researchers, now involved in the ResBios project, developed a specifically tailored Code of Conduct for biosciences (CCB), with the help of researchers from the Department of biodiversity, and external experts such as philosophers, administration and university leadership. The CCB in this regard represents a fundamental document to guide researchers in their daily activities.
The CCB of the University of Primorska addresses all the 3 main aspects of academic code of conduct, namely the Code of conduct in the field and laboratory work for both students and researchers, Code of conduct in biological research, and Code of conduct in teaching. However, creating a CCB is only a first step towards sustainability. The important part of ethic implementation is raising awareness on CCB and good ethical practises among scientists and students. For this purpose, we have included the CCB as part of the regular syllabus for students enrolled in both the Bachelor and Master study programme of Conservation biology and Nature conservation, respectively. It is important that students in life sciences become aware of ethical issues and the CCB, so that good ethical practice will be part of their scientific career from an early stage.
Furthermore, to support the full implementation of the CCB, the University has reviewed and updated their Ethical policy and recommendations, and has established a functional ethics committee at the University level.
The CCB was also translated into English to allow easy access to the international staff. This document was shared with collaborating institutions and disseminated among any interested researchers involved in the RRI implementation as part of the ResBios project and beyond. One of the main benefits of the CCB is that it can be regularly updated and tailored to specific needs to best fit the institutional framework, thus making it adaptable to other scientific fields or institutions.
The key to RRI and ethical sustainability is to implement ethics into society through education. It is never too soon to take even a modest amount of time to educate the existing workforce and the next generation of scientists and leaders about the importance of scientific integrity, humanity, and ethics. Raising a sense of laboratory responsibility, including ethics, and societal responsibility, is essential in developing a future workforce that is well-trained to meet the scientific and ethical needs of the future.
Sandra Potušek, Laura Iacolina, Felicita Urzi and Elena Bužan (University of Primorska - Slovenia)