Principles for science and society

Scientists and researchers always work within an ethical framework of some description, but what this should be is up for debate

Scientists and researchers always work within an ethical framework of some description, but what this should be is up for debate

On December 8 at Science Forum South Africa (SFSA) in Pretoria the findings made over five years by more than 350 luminaries — who came together from across the globe to codify a set of ethics and principles that inform work at the boundaries of science, society and public policy — are being made public for the first time.

This represents a major endorsement for the conference and offers the initiative’s organisers a perfect feedback platform for those new voices, especially from Africa, breaking through the international glass ceiling. Furthermore, four of the five high level consultation events 2012-2016 were hosted by the South African mission to the EU, with several members of the national science establishment taking part.

The SFSA panel moderated by 2012-2016 organiser Aidan Gilligan, chief executive of SciCom – Making Sense of Science and governing board member of EuroScience, includes key content architects such as 2016 chair, the University of Cape Town’s Professor Julian Kinderlerer, former president of the European Group on Ethics; and inaugural 2012 chair, Dame Anne Glover of Aberdeen University, formerly chief science adviser to European Commission president José Manual Barroso.

2015 and 2016 participant Professor Tateo Arimoto represented the Japanese government; 2016 participant Dr Imraan Patel is deputy director general of the department of science and technology; and 2016 discussion lead Dr Lidia Brito of UNESCO’s regional office in Latin America and the Caribbean, former minister of science of Mozambique, make up the group of thought-provokers.

The panel will outline 20 main arguments stemming from the five pivotal questions various working groups addressed:

  • What should be the relationship between science, society and policy?
  • What should we expect from the scientific community?
  • What should we expect from the policy-making community?
  • What should we expect from the public, industry, media and interest groups?
  • What needs to happen next?
  • A final set of recommendations will be presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting being held in Boston in mid-February, 2017. An Easter event in Antwerp, Belgium marking the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome brings contributors back as a group “reset moment” calling for greater inclusivity, integrity and accountability in global science. Finally, this codified document offering a new blueprint for both discussion and behaviour in the global scientific enterprise will be put forward at the World Science Forum in Jordan in November 2017.

    Almost all policy decisions are based on evidence provided by experts. Who the experts are, how they are chosen and what is the veracity of their advice is often open to question.Therefore this bottom-up, all-of-science and society initiative stands to make a considerable impact on the ways in which the practice of scientific research, the inputting of evidence to inform policy, and the taking of advice is structured and delivered for two main reasons:

    Firstly, this movement started with a blank canvas. Everything was done not to prejudge outcomes, while creating confidence-building environments, so that participants of all shades could speak openly about the good and the bad they encounter when science speaks to power because it has evidence. Rather than reeling out a parade of truisms that everybody could agree upon, we set ourselves the task of establishing a new playbook to better address the practice, ethics and liability issues surrounding evidence-based policy-making versus policy-biased evidence-making.

    Secondly, we went to great lengths to shake up the status quo in confronting the usual “top down” career professional scientific class with a balanced representation of “bottom up” stakeholders including doctors, patient groups, heads of research and development, civil society and media. Bringing elites and decision-makers controlling policy and funding together with hands-on, bread-and-butter experts such as caregivers and leading scientists within the drug, alcohol and tobacco industries was completely novel. Our philosophy remains that everybody’s science is welcome, under scrutiny; bans and cherry picking just don’t work.

    The back story to this five-year experiment is rich with tales of scepticism, walk-outs, unbridled support and love-ins. Our gatherings prove that, sadly, there is something fundamentally wrong today in how we go about evidence-making and evidence-taking. The knowledge institutions and authorities, which traditionally have been responsible for delivering facts, have multiplied. New players have joined but work to political and economic ends rather than factual ones. Think tanks, politically appointed commissions and expert groups are manifest. Yet, there are few checks and balances in place or means to contest when policies proposed by elite power circles are clearly not evidence-based nor in the interest of those tax-paying citizens they are supposed to serve — and people’s wellbeing suffers as a result.

    The current lack of public engagement in fact-based decision-making has some people asking if we have entered a “post-factual” era of democracy after Brexit and the [Donald] Trump win. Perhaps it is one in which the public identifies with populist rhetoric, celebrity authority, and information framed by algorithms and political campaigners. The internet is to blame; citizen science is a travesty. This is a world where the end justifies the means, once a deal is struck.

    The truth is that the bulk of decisions have always been made based on fears and assumptions, because people feel science and politics have left them behind. Politicians often talk about regaining the trust of citizens; when did they ever have it and more importantly, why should they? Scrutiny matters. Similarly, when was democracy ever purely “factual”, as if science once had a perfect feed-in relationship? Political “facts” are something people become convinced of, even if they are not actually true. Scientific facts are usually true, even where interpretation is open, but people find it increasingly harder to believe in them. And why should they, when we are bombarded daily with promises of cures for this or that cancer, “proof” of life on Mars and doom-and-gloom prophecies of mass extinctions? 

    But these discussions should not mislead the science policy community to hasten to conclusions and stray away from championing evidence. Yes, much of the information (including scientific) that is presented to citizens is immediately challenged by counter evidence presented by other sources/communities that have an interest in presenting their own worldview. Discussions around Cannabis, genetically modified organisms, MRSA [Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is a bacterium responsible for several difficult-to-treat infections in humans], antibiotics, e-cigarettes, designer babies, TTIP [Transatlanctic Trade and Investment Partnership] are examples. But no, we should not give up on defending the right thing to do when the scientific evidence is clear. We need to empower more science and indeed, society actors to stand up and when necessary, tell others to shut up. This is not happening enough. 

    What the Science Forum South Africa panel will argue on behalf of all concerned is quite simple. It is extremely important to restore confidence in science, based not on top-down authority or even certainty but on methodological trust: scientific knowledge produced by testing a hypothesis, valuing results, using transparent methods, declaring vested interests, submitting your ideas to criticism and revisions etcetera. This is indeed superior to other types of knowledge. Furthermore, we are quite convinced it is the only way to defend modernity and democracy in the face of populism and authoritarianism.

    Our central premise is that science advice can never be accurate unless social psychology and humanities studies around information selection, confirmation bias, pluralistic ignorance, extremism, polarisation, decision-making and the like are fully factored in. You can expend blood, sweat and tears on top of hard cash telling people that smoking and drinking kill, but most people simply do not moderate their behaviour. Similarly, as Kofi Annan put it “drugs have harmed many people, but bad government policies have harmed many more”.

    The discussions and arguments put forward on December 8 attempt to lay bare glaring inconsistencies whereby society and its policies both profess intolerance to certain behaviours while providing and even pushing the social settings to enable and legitimatise their use. Speakers will also tackle concepts such as dignity and autonomy as bedrocks of an ethical perception of our lives. For example, how do we differentiate between the responsibilities of individuals to look after themselves and the responsibilities of states to look after their citizens? Should certain sectors of society be allowed to step in and require individuals to accept norms, regardless of their own beliefs? 

    In the end, the question of fact-based decision-making boils down to squaring science with this “human factor”. That is why our call for a new, bottom-up blueprint for evidence, ethics and principles is so obvious, yet revolutionary. It remains a work in progress, but an important start has been made in Pretoria. A lack of literacy in the population is a red herring argument too easy for elites to peddle. The larger issue is the glaring apartheid system in science and the reluctance of established (perhaps entitled) gatekeepers to properly engage new voices offering robust evidence.

    Professor Michel Kazatchkine is UN special health envoy; Professor Julian Kinderlerer is from the European Group on Ethics and the University of Cape Town; Aidan Gilligan is chief executive of SciCom – Making Sense of Science ([email protected] & www.sci-com.eu