The Universal Ethical Code for Scientists

An assessment by Chairs of Scientific Advisory Councils and pilot institutions

Sir David King’s Universal Ethical Code for Scientists (the Code) was introduced in 2005 with the aim of creating a unifying code of practice for all those using scientific methods as part of their work. The code was intended to be “public statement of the values and responsibilities of scientists” 1. The Code has been piloted by five Government organizations that conduct scientific research and are responsible for regulatory decisions. The Code is also contained within the briefing packs of members of Government Scientific Advisory Committees (SACs).

People Science and Policy was commissioned by the Department of Business, Innovations, and Skills (BIS) to undertake a review of the Universal Ethical Code amongst Chairs of SACs and institutions that piloted the Code. PSP conducted in-depth interviews with 12 Chairs of SACs, site visits at three of the pilot institutions and interviews with key personnel in two other pilot institutions.

Usefulness of the Code

Many interviewees saw the particular value of the code as a means of embedding the idea that ethics permeates all aspects of scientific inquiry, even though it was felt that the Code was too vague to be of any practical use.

The Code was welcomed as an equivalent to the codes of practice used by other learned professions and seen as valuable in those areas of research that do not already have prescriptive codes of practice and in ensuring ethical consistency in multi-disciplinary, inter-agency and international research.

The Code was seen as congruent with the principle of an open organization and was thought to give confidence to those who might be in a position to speak out about corrupt practices and professional misconduct, as well as aiding management in general.

Many singled out the emphasis that the Code places on communication of science as a unique aspect of the document. Some felt that this would help to improve public trust in science and mitigate future controversies in science and policy.

Impact

Although the Code is viewed in a favorable light by many, it does not enjoy a high profile. Few chairs were aware of the code and even fewer had implemented it as part of their committee’s procedures. However, once awareness was raised, many were enthusiastic about how it might help their committees as well as scientists in general. Some suggested that it should be introduced early in scientists’ training.

Most of those interviewed at pilot institutions felt that the code reflected the way in which they currently operated and none had experienced major upheavals as a result of adopting it. Nevertheless, some did see it as helpful in shifting the perception of ethics from an abstract concept to a central principle of scientific research.

Though both Chairs and those interviewed at pilot institutions saw the code as a summary of what it means to be a good scientist, some felt that these principles cannot necessarily be taken for granted. The Code ensured that these principles were embedded, particularly amongst scientists who are at the earlier stages of their research careers.

Problems

Chairs perceived that the implementation of the Code would raise some problems. The Code contains little guidance on how compliance would be enforced and it is unclear how it relates to the everyday working practices of some researchers.

Though the emphasis on the communication of science was welcomed, some felt that there was little guidance about what should be done if a policy contradicted scientific research, or if public opinion contradicted scientific research.

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1 Department of Business Innovation and Skills (www.bis.gov.uk).

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