Extra Consideration -Ethics and the Biosciences

When we think about ethics, most of us associate it with the concept of rules, distinguishing between what is right and what is wrong, what is morally acceptable and what is not. Similar to laws, but with no police to enforce them. However, like all philosophical disciplines, ethics is much more nuanced, coming in different colours and flavours depending on the topic being discussed. More importantly, ethics provides a toolkit, being it a method, a procedure, or a perspective, for us to apply to all of our decision-making processes.

As researchers working in Biosciences, we chose to focus our attention on bioethical aspects and how ethical principles can sustain and improve research and, ultimately, its societal impact on the Eve of the Global Ethics Day, with an open lecture from assoc. prof. dr. Grušovnik (University of Primorska, Slovenia).

Bioethics provides a toolkit specific for biosciences, and focuses on four main groups: research subjects, the research community, society as a whole, and the data itself. While we all agree that society should benefit from research, we still need to improve the inclusiveness of this concept and learn to account for all the diversity within it. By doing so we can increase the involvement of citizens, and actively reduce the unbalance in represented groups so that, in the end, our research will be in the best interest of a larger portion of society. At the same time, we should never forget the needs and wellbeing of research subjects. Specific regulations exist for humans and mammals, but we should nonetheless consider ethical principles when the subjects are other animals, plants and even inanimate objects, such as landscapes or museum specimens. Ethical norms additionally promote the very aims of research, such as knowledge, truth and rigorous adherence to standards and protocols that minimise errors. All data collected and generated should thus be true, any falsification or misrepresentation is considered a violation of research integrity, objectively and impartially presented, and any mistake should be readily notified. To allow replicability, results and procedures should be shared with sufficient detail for others to repeat the work. However, at the same time it is important to protect sensitive data, so that no harm (or discrimination) can come to the subjects, being them, humans involved in medical studies or endangered species. Another fundamental ethical principle in research is to give credit when credit is due. Such aspects are additionally regulated by authorship guidelines, copyright and patenting policies. Furthermore, an increasing number of universities are adopting Codes of Conduct to regulate interactions among researchers and within the university. Science is a collaborative process and often involves people from different disciplines, it is thus important to have shared ethical principles that promote fairness, trust and accountability, to set the bases of good relations and protect all researchers, independently from their career stage.

While these might sound like fairly general principles, it is actually extremely important to formally recognise and accept them at the institutional level through the adoption of regulations and policies. Equally important is to introduce students, researchers and internal and external stakeholders to these concepts in order for them to become ingrained in our daily activities. Ethics might not be binding as law, but the general and widespread adoption of this toolkit would surely benefit both research and society, while supporting a more open conversation between scientists and citizens based on mutual trust and collaborative principles.

Laura Iacolina (University of Primorska - Slovenia)



Mutual learning for responsible biosciences

This is the blog of the ResBios project (https://www.resbios.eu). It aims to bring RRI institutional changes into some biosciences research organizations.