COMETS publishes a Opinion “ Opportunity-driven campaigns : Ethical partnerships for scientific research? ” (n°2023-45), approved on september 14, 2023.


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SUMMARY – COMETS was asked by the CNRS Chairman and CEO to make recommendations on the ethical conditions under which CNRS research staff may participate in ‘opportunity-driven campaigns’ whereby they take advantage of public or private logistical resources not originally designed for research purposes—such as airliners or naval, commercial, cruise or pleasure vessels—in order to take aboard instruments to collect scientific data or go aboard themselves to conduct research projects.

This internal request comes after the CNRS was publicly questioned by the French branch of Scientist Rebellion about a particular type of opportunity-driven campaign offered by Compagnie du Ponant, a tour operator that organises cruises to polar regions while using the onboard presence of researchers conducting research projects as a marketing argument for its customers. This passenger-funded model, which reinvents the traditional idea of an opportunity-driven campaign, is part of a more general movement initiated by tourist industry players that offer trips to ‘unique’ or difficult-to-reach locations such as the polar regions or lagoons.

In this Opinion, COMETS considers these examples in the context of a comprehensive analysis of such opportunity-driven campaigns, taking into account all the dimensions involved (advancing knowledge, impact on the environment and populations, private funding of research, etc.). It believes that, generally speaking, it would be a pity to deprive research of the scientific data that such opportunities can undeniably provide. However, it considers that they can become problematic when they are an accessory to tourism that has a negative impact on the environment and, even more so, when they are used as an argument to endorse or even promote such tourism.

This is why COMETS recommends that, when research contracts are offered alongside tourist activities in vulnerable areas (such as polar regions, protected areas, lagoons, the ocean depths, space, etc.), particular care should be taken to balance the research campaign’s scientific contribution against the environmental and socio-cultural impact of the activity to which it is linked, as well as its repercussions on the image of the CNRS and research more generally.

In this respect, COMETS has serious reservations about the opportunity-driven campaigns currently offered by Compagnie du Ponant aboard the icebreaking cruise ship Le Commandant Charcot in the Arctic and Antarctic. Compared with other polar tour operators, this company undoubtedly has a relatively virtuous approach to environmental issues and offers the researchers it hosts fair contracts. However, these field campaigns are of limited scientific interest while impacting the environment and human societies. At the same time, the presence of scientists on board is used as a promotional argument for polar tourism, an activity that is even more ethically questionable given that it is developing on an unprecedented scale and putting these regions under increasing pressure. 

Rather than letting research staff decide for themselves whether or not to enter into this type of partnership, and allowing regional delegations to negotiate these contracts on an ad hoc basis, COMETS recommends that the CNRS adopt:

– a clear public stance on the acceptability criteria for this kind of opportunity-driven research campaign and indeed other partnerships with companies and foundations; COMETS believes that the scientific benefit of the campaign, its environmental, social and cultural impact, and its repercussions on the image of research in general and the CNRS in particular should systematically be taken into account; this position should clearly identify the ‘red lines’ not to be crossed, and update them periodically in response to the ever-changing range of opportunities on offer;

– a framework applicable to those opportunity-driven campaigns that will ultimately be considered acceptable; this framework should in particular ensure that they are conducted with due respect for the best interests of science, with the research thus carried out remaining independent and impartial, and in keeping with the professional responsibilities of research staff. In particular, the following points should be observed: the rules governing the holding of multiple positions; a scientific project that is clear, of high quality and that undergoes peer review; a clear demonstration that the opportunity-driven campaign will provide data of use to the proposed project; a detailed campaign report; an ex-post evaluation of the project; the CNRS must own the results and data collected; the private operator must not be able to hinder publication or unrestricted access to the results; lastly, particular attention must be paid to the reusability of the datasets collected for other research (the principles of open science encourage research data to be ‘reusable’, which is particularly desirable when they have been obtained in fragile environments, in order to avoid duplicating research campaigns).