Science & Ethics

Passionate debates on biotechnology, stem cell research and cloning have shown that there is a need for open public dialogue on the ethical implications of scientific advances. With a view of furthering responsible research which respects fundamental ethical principles, the EU has taken a number of initiatives addressing ethical issues.

Fierce debates on issues like biotechnology, stem cell research and cloning have shown that the rapid scientific and technological progress can give rise to serious ethical questions. These concerns must be addressed by policy makers and the scientific community alike to take into account public fears and to avoid alienating citizens and creating an environment hostile to scientific and technological innovations. Moreover, in light of efforts to develop in a sustainable way, implications of new technologies for future generations must be thoroughly considered.

In a European context, divergent ethical, religious, historical and philosophical backgrounds can lead to a variety of approaches on ethical questions. While taking these differences into account the EU has started a number of initiatives to promote responsible science and research which respect fundamental ethical principles

1. The 6th Research Framework Programme (FP6)

In the 6th FP, the EU introduced a reference to ethical issues, stating that "activities under the Sixth Framework Programme should be conducted in compliance with ethical principles, including those reflected in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union". In practice, this means that ethical rules are applied by performing an assessment of research projects funded by the Commission. This assessment covers potential issues arising from research involving persons, in particular children or persons unable to give consent, pregnant women or volunteers for clinical trials; the use of human embryonic stem cells, human foetuses, human foetal tissue and other human biological samples; the use of personal data; the use of animals; and compliance with national regulations and international codes of conduct.  

Moreover, the EU supports, through the 6th FP, research on ethical and social issues raised by developments in science and technology.

2. The 'Science and Society Action Plan'

In its action plan adopted in December 2001, the Commission included a  chapter on the ethical dimension in science and the new technologies. Particular attention is given to gaining and maintaining public trust by making information on ethical issues more accessible to the general public and by fostering a public dialogue on ethics in science with non-governmental organisations, industry, religious and cultural communities. Moreover, the integrity of researchers and their awareness of the ethical dimensions of their activities will be promoted, and the exchange between National Ethics Committees facilitated. The Commission also plans to encourage a dialogue with other regions of the world to explore and understand the differences in attitudes and ethical frameworks. 

3. The European Parliament's activities

The Parliament has undertaken a number of efforts to clarify common positions on ethically divergent questions, by adopting reports and resolutions on this issue through its Committee on Industry, Energy and Research, its Scientific Techological Options Assessment group (STOA) and a temporary "Committee on human genetics and other new technologies in modern medicine" (2001-2002). These bodies have been committed to furthering research into ethical issues and fostering public dialogue. In particular, the Parliament has called for a clear and predictable EU legal framework on issues such as biotechnology, which must take into account ethical considerations, while at the same time providing for an innovation-friendly and secure environment for science and business.

4. The  European Group on Ethics and New Technologies 

The European Group on Ethics was set up in 1997 by the Commission to provide independant and pluralist advice on ethical aspects of science and new technologies in connection with the preparation and implementation of Community legislation or policies. It has since helped guide the Community policies on culturally sensitive ethical questions in science by issuing opinions on subjects as diverse as human tissue bankinghuman embryo researchhealthcare in the information societydoping in sportclinical research in developing countriesgenetic testing in the workplace and human stem cell research. It also wrote the Report on the Charter on Fundamental Rights related to technological innovation.

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