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“Through its opinions and the training activities which it conducts or in which it participates, COMETS calls the attention of research and management personnel on the ethical and societal dimensions of all research. In so doing, it aims to clarify the exercise of freedom of research in relation to the obligations and responsibilities that these personnel have towards the CNRS and, more generally, towards society”.

Opinion n°2019-40 - Publications in the open science data era.

Approbation Initially approved at the COMETS plenary session of 8 November 2019, then definitively approved on 14 January 2020.

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SUMMARY – The opening up of scientific publications heralds new, very stimulating opportunities as they offer universal access to all human knowledge to anyone, anywhere, at any time. This Opinion describes the different methods and procedures involved and examines the consequences, that may be unintended. While more and more open access journals use peer reviews in the selection process, they may be differentiated by the way in which the costs of publication are financed. Most of the time, these costs give rise to the payment of article processing charges (APCs) either by the researcher-authors themselves, or by their host organisation. If we are not careful, the result is an unjust system that not only creates inequalities between researchers but also generates unfair profits for publishers through public investment and the work of scientists who both provide research and assess other researchers’ work free of charge. There is furthermore a multiplication of editorial offers with reduced APCs but without any guarantee of scientific rigour, a situation that artificially increases the number of publications and arouses suspicion. It is difficult to identify the journals involved, some of which may be considered unreliable if not to say fraudulent. In addition, open archives such as the HAL online platform, allow research documents to be deposited free of charge on a web platform, making them immediately accessible to all. This ‘green route’ has the approval of COMETS, which invites researchers to use it to submit their papers once they have been accepted. Authors can also deposit their articles online as preprints even before they are reviewed, thus instantaneously communicating them to the whole community. Other members can then discuss the articles, leading to improvements. Veritable scientific forums can then spontaneously emerge. Although online preprints are not peer reviewed prior to dissemination, a review can nonetheless be organised through the ‘Peer Community in’ (PCI) system. Numerous models are emerging that do not demand APCs. Epijournals—considered as open access journals—for example, offer open access publication that relies on researchers themselves and expert reviews, avoiding the intervention of private publishers. The OpenEdition web platform offers a complete electronic publication infrastructure for the humanities and social sciences (HSS) without any APCs and with free access to publications in html format. This COMETS Opinion identifies several novel ways of benefiting from open access publication. It first describes the difficulties related to peer reviews and seeks alternatives. It then analyses the consequences of open publications on the assessment of researchers and finally makes recommendations to improve reviews while preserving ‘bibliodiversity’. COMETS recommends in particular supporting initiatives taken by researchers to promote open publications, consolidating the interoperability of open archives—in particular HAL—with other international open archives, applying the DORA principles and adopting Creative Commons licences.

Opinion n°2019-39 - Interests and conflicts of interest in public research.

Approved at the COMETS plenary session of 08 April 2019.

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SUMMARY – The current social context is such that conflicts of interest that may influence decisions about public life are increasingly being brought into the spotlight. The scientific research sector is directly concerned by this issue insofar as Higher Education and Research (HE&R) players participate in assessments or expert appraisals and benefit from contracts either with the private sector, the French public sector or the European Union. It therefore appears necessary to specify the procedures for assessing and handling conflicts of interest in HE&R. Today, however, these are too often a matter of trial and error, and still include many blind spots. This COMETS Opinion focuses first on distinguishing conflicts of interest from the interests arising from protagonists’ relationships. Interests may be of different kinds: tangible or intellectual, direct or indirect. This Opinion analyses the situations in which these interests must be declared. Such declarations are necessary for the proper functioning of research and are used to avoid bias in expert appraisals of public interest. They should not, however, bring proceedings to a halt by excluding too many of the skill sets required. The recommendations of this Opinion call for the development of a clear doctrine for HE&R staff when called upon to act as assessors or experts, or in certain cases when they hold more than one position or perform more than one role. They suggest a clarification of the procedures for declaring interests arising from relationships, as well as the desirable harmonisation of these procedures among institutions and research agencies. Finally, they advocate the greatest possible transparency in the declaration of the interests of researchers and research units, including in their communication with the media, in order to strengthen public trust in science.

 

 

Opinion n°2018-38 - Research : a global right.

Approved at the COMETS plenary session of 18 October 2018

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FORMAL INTERNAL REQUEST – Scientific research is necessary to address the challenges underlying the conservation and development of global public goods, whether they concern the planet—such as biodiversity and climate; whether they affect humans—such as public health and scientific knowledge; or whether they result from global policies—such as the stability of the global financial system[1]. Scientific research is also a contributing factor to worldwide peace[2]. This is because it is based on exchange and on the values of truth and integrity. Moreover, its universality and neutrality give it a diplomatic dimension, as UNESCO states: “demonstrating recognition by Member States of the growing value of science and technology for tackling various world problems on a broad international basis, thereby strengthening co-operation among nations as well as promoting the development of individual nations” and recommends that Member States seek “to encourage conditions in which scientific researchers […] have the responsibility and the right […] to work in a spirit of intellectual freedom to pursue, expound and defend the scientific truth as they see it”. Research must therefore be able to be carried out freely: obviously according to the relevance of scientific questions but also to the socio-economic context and local capabilities. 

However, current conflicts and the new situations they generate endanger research activities. In some countries, research is limited or even prohibited for ideological, religious or political reasons. Some subjects are not allowed to be addressed, research activities are restricted, projects are monitored and the dissemination of conclusions is forbidden, all to a greater or lesser degree of radicalism. In countries where religion has a strong impact on politics, research that does not comply with the official credo is threatened. The place of women in research activities is the subject of daily struggles. Even in democratic countries, certain research activities can be monitored and subject to pressure from lobbies, despite the intervention of opposition forces. Finally, armed conflicts limit the free movement of researchers and put their lives at risk. When a country is in the grip of permanent violence, whether civil war or terror imposed by armed groups of a political or mafia-like nature, research may be restricted and the researcher threatened.

All these situations of coercion call for researchers to be protected. They also raise specific ethical issues for the international scientific community that COMETS intends to address. The issuing of this formal internal request is thus in line with the COMETS Opinion on freedoms and responsibilities in academic research[3], but now addresses the specific issue of safety and solidarity imposed by research activities in situations where human rights are violated. The solutions to the problems thus posed obviously go far beyond the scope of research institutions. However, we believe that they—and especially the CNRS—have an important role to play in defending the ethics of science in the international arena in light of the arbitrary nature of non-democratic political systems.

COMETS investigates herein the right of researchers worldwide to carry out research anywhere, free from taboos, hindrance or pressure.

 

[1] Charles Kindleberger: “International public goods without international government”, American Economic Review, no. 76, 1, 1986.

[2] See Aant Elzinga: “Features of the current science policy regime: Viewed in historical perspective”, Science and Public Policy, Volume 39, Issue 4, 1 August 2012, Pages 416 – 428, https://doi.org/10.1093/scipol/scs046, published on 6 August 2012.

[3] COMETS Opinion no. 2017-35

Opinion n°2018-37 - What new responsibilities do researchers have at this time of debate over post-truth ?

Approved at the COMETS plenary session of 12 April 2018

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FORMAL INTERNAL REQUEST – Post-truth, alternative truth and fake news are terms that are increasingly present in the public debate, yet have emerged only recently in the vocabulary of certain politicians and media. Being founded on opinions and beliefs, they oppose the truth to which scientific reasoning refers.

Whether talking about a deliberate determination to query scientific facts for economic, political, ideological or religious motives, or whether qualifying an assumed indifference with respect to facts and criteria of truth relegated far behind the efficiency of opinions and discourse, this new “post-truth’ era which we are considered to have entered necessarily concerns researchers. What does this all mean for them? Should this new situation not lead them to be more careful about how their findings are interpreted among the general public? What attitude should they adopt when asserting their arguments so as to avoid arrogance? What are the most appropriate ways that a researcher can intervene on the public stage? What new challenges linked to the ethics of controversy, the upholding of trust, the new relations between politics and science, or the challenges of effective scientific communication, does this new cultural context raise?

In a world where scientific truth may be twisted by alternative studies initiated by ‘merchants of doubt’, where the very notion of truth sometimes no longer appears relevant to political debates nor a necessary foundation for civic controversies, and where mistrust of the bodies entrusted with scientific authority spreads by taking advantage of the impact of social networks, what new responsibilities are emerging for scientists to shoulder ?

Opinion n°2018-36 - Sexual harassment in the laboratory: some ethical considerations.

Approved at the COMETS plenary session of 5 March 2018

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FORMAL INTERNAL REQUEST – The growing freedom of speech about cases of sexual harassment has revealed its presence in all countries and all walks of life. This has encouraged COMETS to analyse this phenomenon in higher education and research, and to put forward recommendations. Taking into account the cases that have been reported—cases that are intolerable with respect to the basic ethical principles of any human activity—COMETS is facing the issue of whether the resources used today to counter sexual harassment in the research sector are sufficient. The committee is therefore investigating new ways of helping victims and hopes in doing so to attract people’s attention to the seriousness of such facts in higher education and research, especially within the CNRS.

COMETS would like to specify that the analyses of this Opinion are not intended to introduce codified instructions on conduct between men and women, limiting the freedom of inter-personal relationships.

Opinion n°2018-35 - Freedoms and responsibilities in academic research.

Approved at the COMETS plenary session of 1 February 2018

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SUMMARY – At the time of UNESCO’s revision in 2016 of a recommendation first published in 1974 on the status of scientific researchers, it appeared that academic research practices had evolved so much during the last few decades that it made sense for COMETS to conduct deliberations on the freedom of researchers from political, economic and sociological points of view, and their responsibilities with respect to social and environmental challenges.

This report begins by presenting the status of researchers with respect to their freedom to inform themselves and others, which nowadays includes the free circulation of data and communication of research results. It appears that conditions have considerably evolved since the emergence of the Internet, the worldwide web, the open science movement and the French Digital Republic Act of 2016. They have become much broader for researchers, including in their communication with the public, with major changes now emerging.

The researcher’s freedom is then examined with respect to current contractual research policies that are defined, particularly in France and Europe, in terms of the scientific challenges to be met. COMETS, on the other hand, defends a researcher’s freedom of choice concerning research subjects and the role of fundamental research, which is the main driving force behind the expansion of knowledge and a bearer of discoveries with great potential for applications. The committee analyses the constraints that hinder the creativity of researchers, emphasising the importance of the time factor and readiness of mind, insufficient in many respects in current scientific practices. It also underlines the importance of the trust that must be placed in a researcher developing personal projects. Finally, it points out that the free exercise of research implies respect for the moral rights of all research players.

COMETS has been considering research carried out in an international framework, especially in countries where decisions are anything but democratic, human rights are disregarded or war has been declared. The free flow of ideas and movement of people are being impeded: pressure is being exerted to steer research in line with economic, ideological or religious prejudices. In such a context, how may we pursue research without endangering our colleagues or endorsing the current political order? On a different plane, the diplomatic strategies established by countries in terms of research sometimes lead them to dictate research subjects that do not match what researchers consider scientific priorities.

COMETS then analyses the freedom of researchers with respect to their responsibilities, recalling that the ethical foundations of the latter are not only related to integrity and the absence of harm or wrongdoing in the research, but also preservation of the environment and common public goods. Next, COMETS investigates the responsibility of researchers when invited to play the role of scientific expert that is rightfully theirs within the democratic debate. The conclusion affirms the need and duty that binds all research players to counter untruths when and where they appear insofar as they obviously and blatantly conflict with the insights brought by science. 

Opinion n°2017-34 - Ethical reflection on plagiarism in scientific research .

Approved at the COMETS plenary session of 27 June 2017

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SUMMARY – This COMETS Opinion offers an analysis of the different forms that plagiarism can take in the higher education and research sectors. Plagiarism is multi-faceted, its numerous variants all being condemned to a greater or lesser degree according to the field. However, each constitutes a breach of ethics; some are obviously more serious than others, but all are fraudulent. In the case of publications, plagiarism may range from a more or less crude copy without suitable credits to an identical or paraphrased version. There are limits to the exposure of plagiarism by the homology-detection software widely used by publishers of major science journals or universities wishing to check theses before their defence. Plagiarism also includes the misappropriation of somebody else’s results, clearly a theft of intellectual production often leading to authorship conflicts, and the reuse of ideas put forward in research projects that the plagiarist has had the opportunity of evaluating. The concept of “self-plagiarism” is also complex, and may be assessed differently according to the circumstances. Authors who reuse their past research while claiming that it is new, falsify their implicit moral commitment to the reader and violate the profession’s good practices. Self-plagiarism may be evaluated differently according to the situation, and is not always considered an objectionable practice. Repeating parts already published in successive articles may be justified, for example in a review of the state of the art, as long as reference is made to the original article. By publishing small ‘slices’ of the same study in partially-overlapping articles (a practice known as ‘salami slicing’), the researcher can achieve a higher ranking much faster, but this practice must not be used for the sole purpose of inflating the author’s list of publications. The case of self-plagiarism for scientific popularisation is the subject of specific deliberations. This Opinion also discusses cases of counterfeiting in the research sector that resemble plagiarism in a number of human and social science disciplines. The reasons behind the development of plagiarism are mentioned, along with the harm it does to research and to society’s opinion of scientists. When plagiarism infringes the intellectual property rights conferred upon intellectual works, the author may then initiate legal proceedings for counterfeiting against the plagiarist, ‘counterfeiting’ being thus interpreted in the legal sense of the term. A number of examples of sanctions from case law are described. The Opinion concludes with recommendations for researchers to help them avoid both plagiarising and being plagiarised.

Opinion n°2016-33 - How CNRS can respond to scientific integrity violations.

Approved June 2016

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SUMMARY – This position paper focuses on how CNRS can implement the principles set out in the National Code of Ethics for Research Professions, which it signed in January 2015 along with a large number of French research institutions. The Code of Ethics falls within the framework of the French law on ethics and the rights and obligations of officials of 20 April 2016, and takes the general concern for ethics into account at European level. 

This position paper identifies various practices that violate scientific integrity, ranging from fraud – including plagiarism and the fabrication and falsification of results – to non-disclosed conflicts of interest. It explores the issues in relation to their exposure once they have been identified and how institutions handle the allegations made. COMETS believes CNRS should encourage and facilitate the internal submission of reliable allegations of misconduct or fraud against staff in its research units. It suggests that CNRS would benefit from appointing an integrity officer alongside the ombudsman to receive fraud allegations from laboratories and organise a response, in liaison with the Institutes’ deputy scientific directors and the National Scientific Research Committee (CoNRS). This officer could also work in cooperation with advisers in each main academic field. Whatever system CNRS chooses to put in place, COMETS believes it is especially important to provide a single, easily accessible and clearly identified point of entry for allegations of fraud. This raises the question of whistleblower protection. COMETS would like to see greater transparency in how the institution handles cases of fraud and the penalties imposed as a result. Inposition paper, COMETS reflects on the risk posed to scientific integrity by putting pressure on publications. It sets out recommendations for reversing this trend, based on researcher and project evaluation practices especially. It also suggests that results are published with raw data where applicable. Finally, COMETS underlines the need to put in place training in scientific integrity for all research staff at CNRS in accordance with the National Code of Ethics for Research Professions, which it has promised to enforce in partnership with universities and other research bodies.

Opinion n°2016-32 - Discussion and moderation of scientific publications on social networks and in the media : ethical issues.

Approved April 2016

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SUMMARY – Internet use is changing the way in which scientific works are published. The Open Science movement refers to the various ways in which scientific work can be accessed through digital means. Results can be published instantly and free of charge via open archives, scientific websites and open-access journals. The system for accessing publications and offering constructive criticism by peers (peer review) is now struggling to cope. The volume of articles being submitted to journals is constantly increasing. This is largely due to the fact that researchers’ reputations and projects rely heavily on the length of publication lists. As the number of articles increases, so does the number of journals. Gold Open Access has given rise to a number of ‘predatory’ journals with fictitious editorial boards. There is an increasing demand for researcher-reviewers from journal editors, who often stipulate short turnaround times for the delivery of their reports. Peer review failings have led to social networks seizing upon these issues, opening up dialogue between researchers. The Retraction Watch website highlights a growing number of articles withdrawn by journals because they contain either errors or fraudulent data, which breaks the code of research ethics. The site PubPeer, initially intended as a platform for open discussion on published papers, reached a new level when it began to accept anonymous comments condemning dubious publication practices, such as manipulated tables and data, and even plagiarism, which the site helps to expose. COMETS discusses in this article both the duty every researcher has to expose the bad practices he or she is aware of, and the correct and incorrect use of anonymity. COMETS believes that scientific social networks – open to all, easy to use and interactive – are precious sources of information not only for publishers but also for research institutions. CNRS is advised to make appropriate use of them and encourage the publication of research findings using all available online methods, particularly HAL open archives. Finally, this discussion highlights the responsibility of all researchers in terms of how they publish their findings, be that directly, in journals for the general public or on social networks. Recommendations have also been made on how to avoid premature announcements that do not guarantee scientific rigour and may damage the public’s perception of science.

Opinion n°2015-31 - Citizen science.

Approved June 25, 2015

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SUMMARY – The relations between science and society have altered profoundly over the course of history. Since the 1970s, the notion of progress has come under fire with growing awarenessa of its impacts on the environment and human health. Today, this puts the spotlight on the questions citizens ask of researchers and research institutions, as well as the need for researchers to explain the nature and importance of their approach to society as a whole. Here, COMETS expresses the urgent need for a relationship of trust to be built between citizens and scientists. Two avenues are considered: participatory science and a renewed dialogue between science and citizens.

Participatory science, a fast developing phenomenon today thanks to the Internet, involves amateur citizens in scientific activities for the collection of data and sometimes the joint formulation or interpretation of results. This brings considerable mutual benefits, firstly through it contribution to the production of knowledge, and secondly in educating citizens in the scientific method and mindset. It is also an approach that encourages scientific vocations amongst young people. COMETS puts forward recommendations on the establishment of frameworks for the practices of amateur networks, on the importance of validating results, on the respect for anonymity in the case of private data, and finally on the status and recognition owed to contributors.

In a world shaken by successive crises and riven by controversies on sensitive subjects, COMETS is of the view that researchers and their institutions need to listen to the public’s questions on the impacts of their choices. While reaffirming the autonomy of the scientific sphere, it considers it necessary to reflect on the forms that the public debate around research questions should take. It strongly stresses the importance of disseminating scientific culture and actively promoting it at all levels of society. It recommends that the assessments made by scientists on issues that have a societal impact should be conducted in the absence of conflicts of interest, within an interdisciplinary and if possible international framework. It recommends that CNRS should support the involvement of research teams in the analysis of perceptions of science and encourage initiatives that tackle sensitive topics. Finally, it suggests that CNRS should develop a collective expertise that can be applied in responding to approaches from public decision-makers and democratic bodies.

Opinion n°2015-30 - The ethical challenges of the sharing of scientific data .

Approved May 7, 2015

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SUMMARY – The massive development of IT tools for data collection, measurement and processing has changed the role of data in the production of scientific work. The scientific data sharing movement provided for by international mechanisms such as the Berlin Declaration in 2003 is a response to the need to share results as quickly as possible and overcome legal and technical barriers to the circulation of this data. Similarly open data policies from governments and the European Union have for some years been aimed at the wide dissemination of data acquired with public funding. However not all scientific communities are subject to the same constraints in this respect. The general guidelines can appear to be in conflict with legal restrictions regarding privacy (data protection), copyright law and the obligation of secrecy, or security. Given the complexity of the obligations encountered by researchers, this opinion is intended to reaffirm the need for rational sharing of data and include new requirements for data availability in the assessment of scientific work. The data issue, whether in terms of obstacles to be overcome or limits to openness, has become crucial in the definition of science policy.

Opinion n°2014-29 - Politics of the excellence in research .

Approved May 27, 2014

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SUMMARY – Politics of the excellence in research was put forward by the European Community in the extension of the agenda of Lisbon 2000 asserting the strategic character of a development based on growth and use of the knowledge.  If the ambition of the research supported by public funds is to be at the highest level, it appears that on the long term the preponderant use of the criteria of excellence for founding a politics of the research could contain bias and risks. 

Several points are analysed in this statement :

  • Pointing exclusively on scientific priorities may have a negative effect on the creativity of researchers
  • The reduction or disappearance of recurrent resources instead of targeted funding could damage the activity of scientific working on non-priority thematic
  • The successful discoveries are based on a pyramid of skills the utility and non-programmable character of which must be recognized
  • Ethical behaviour is essential to the “excellence”. Too much competition leads to excesses and loss of efficiency.

The Comets formulates several recommendations to the research managers in charge of the research:

  1. Any selection based on excellence criterion implies to use strong and transparent procedures of assessment.
  2. Politics of excellence and the associated strong financial supports must be moderated by financial basic funding for teams, which are not strictly qualified as excellent.
  3. High quality research is strongly related to a strong reactivity to the new topics out of the mainstream
  4. The logic of the calls leads too often to look for well established thematic that obey often to effects of mode than to the exploitation of the resources..
  5. The politics of excellence develops naturally individualistic behaviours. But the achievements of high-level performance are rarely due to individual research but to the collective work.
  6. The competition generated by the race to the excellence might have as consequence the increase of inappropriate ethical behaviours in the institutions.
  7. The outstanding researchers have special responsibility with respect to the community as well as general public for the popularization of scientific progress.

Opinion n°2014-28 - Ethical issues for public research professionals facing mutation.

Approved February 2014

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RÉSUMÉ – La recherche publique est confrontée depuis une vingtaine d’années à de profondes mutations. Si la motivation des chercheurs et enseignants-chercheurs et leur enthousiasme restent généralement intacts, la multiplication des missions et des contraintes associées à l’exercice du métier font que le temps consacré à la recherche proprement dite diminue et que des tensions et disparités peuvent apparaître au sein des équipes. Le temps consacré à la recherche des financements s’est considérablement accru, les tâches administratives et de gestion sont de plus en plus lourdes, les liens croissants avec le secteur privé peuvent entraîner des abus, l’attention croissante portée, à juste titre, aux attentes et préoccupations de la société sont très chronophages. Les procédures d’évaluation, centrées sur les résultats de la recherche, tiennent insuffisamment compte des multiples missions des chercheurs et enseignants-chercheurs. De plus les méthodes utilisées pour l’évaluation elle-même sont parfois critiquables, en particulier par l’usage inapproprié d’indicateurs bibliométriques, le poids excessif   donné  aux  publications   dans  les  « grands »  journaux  dits   « d’intérêt   général »   et l’accentuation des effets de mode dans les choix des sujets, avec diminution de la prise de risque.

Analysant que ces difficultés peuvent être à l’origine de conflits de valeurs ou de conduites non conformes à l’intégrité scientifique, le COMETS formule les recommandations suivantes :

  1. Pour accroître le temps consacré à la recherche sans mettre en péril les moyens des laboratoires, il importe que les directeurs de laboratoire et les responsables d’équipe conduisent une politique raisonnée de réponse aux appels d’offres et qu’ils s’assurent de la cohérence de l’ensemble de leurs demandes par rapport aux thèmes de recherche centraux des équipes.
  2. Afin de ne pas décourager les chercheurs face à la complexité et la lourdeur inhérentes à la constitution et au suivi de certains dossiers de recherche (contrats européens, ANR, ..), de valorisation (rédaction des brevets), d’administration (dossiers  HCERES…), le COMETS  recommande au CNRS  de créer des  supports administratifs et scientifiques qualifiés et appropriés, en nombre actuellement insuffisant.
  3. La prise de risque doit être encouragée. Pour cela il faut veiller à ne pas pénaliser un chercheur présentant un déficit de publications du fait de cette prise de risque, mais s’assurer du bon déroulement de son projet scientifique  par  une  évaluation    Par  ailleurs,  les  dotations  récurrentes  doivent  être suffisamment élevées pour être un outil de politique scientifique et d’incitation à la prise de risque. (Voir l’avis du COMETS de 2010).
  4. L’évaluation qualitative de la recherche par les pairs doit rester la règle. Elle doit être conduite à l’aide de critères qui tiennent compte de la situation du domaine de recherche, du contexte dans lequel elle se déroule et, si c’est pertinent, de son caractère aux interfaces. Aucune évaluation ne doit se fonder exclusivement sur un décompte purement quantitatif basé sur des indicateurs bibliométriques ou sur le comptage du nombre de brevets. De  même,  la  tentation  d’accorder  un  poids  excessif  aux  « grands »  journaux  dits  « d’intérêt général »doit être maîtrisée.
  5. Le COMETS considère que la diffusion et la vulgarisation des connaissances, ainsi que la valorisation visant à développer l’innovation, sont des missions de plus en plus incontournables pour le chercheur. En conséquence, il recommande de ne pas privilégier exclusivement les résultats de la recherche dans les pratiques de l’évaluation et d’intégrer ces missions plus équitablemen
  6. Afin d’éviter les tensions préjudiciables à la collaboration entre chercheurs et enseignants-chercheurs au sein des unités et des équipes, il est indispensable de tenir compte des différences statutaires et d’appliquer aux évaluations un principe d’équité. Reconnaissant que la mission de recherche n’occupe pas une place équivalente dans chacun des métiers, les évaluations devront être réalisées selon des critères adaptés. Dans un contexte de compétition internationale pour la formation aussi bien que pour la recherche, la qualité de l’enseignement doit être considérée dans l’évaluation au même titre que la qualité de la recherche.
  7. Des actions préventives doivent être entreprises pour éviter les tensions liées aux cumuls d’activités et de rémunérations. Les organismes doivent fournir aux agents une synthèse des règles applicables (pourcentage du temps, rémunération maximum) et veiller à leur application. Chercheurs et enseignants-chercheurs doivent indiquer dans leurs notices de titres et travaux, et dans les fiches CRAC pour les chercheurs, leurs différentes activités rémunérées en lien ou non avec l’objet de leurs recherch
  8. Le COMETS recommande que les directeurs d’unité reçoivent une formation leur permettant d’identifier les activités annexes des chercheurs de leur laboratoire autorisées ou non en matière de conseil et d’expertis
  9. Le COMETS  suggère  que  le  CNRS  demande  à  l’OST  une  enquête statistique sur les cumuls de rémunération en fonction des disciplines, des lieux et de la nature des activités.

Opinion n°2013-27 - Natural Risks, Assessment and Crisis Situation .

Approved september 30, 2013

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FORMAL INTERNAL REQUEST – This own-initiative ruling is concomitant with an INSU alert following the accusations against Italian scientists after the fatal earthquake in Aquila.

In a society riddled with anxiety and fear of the future (economic crisis, the potential dangers of technology, climate change…) it has become very difficult to communicate about the challenges and risks of an uncertain world. Indeed, what characterises these reasons for anxiety is the complexity of the processes that trigger them and the absence of a set of deterministic proofs to establish definitive elements to aid decision-making.

Scientific and public attention was drawn to the problems of expert assessment in crisis situations by the legal proceedings against Italian geophysicists in the case of the Aquila earthquake of 6 April 2009. To give some background on that particular case, we would note that great progress has been made on the causes and effects of earthquakes, which makes it possible to propose effective strategies for minimising risks, but not to make short-term forecasts on the incidence of earthquakes. This state of affairs is accepted and recognised by everyone, including the plaintiffs in the legal case which recently resulted in very severe sentences.

We would recall that the events in question occurred against a dual background of disturbing seismic phenomena and the publication of unfounded predictions. Following a series of numerous small earthquakes which increased the population’s anxiety, a group of scientists met to reach an official position on the situation. A reassuring announcement was then made by a representative of the disaster and emergency services. The plaintiffs accused the scientists of having, through this announcement, given the impression that the earthquake risk was negligible. It should be noted that the level of risk in the region, one of the highest risk areas in Europe, is clearly specified in all the documents made available to the public by the Italian scientific community.[1]

The public information meeting cited in the judgement, if it had taken place in France, could have been analysed in the light of the Scientific Assessment Charters available in France. The situation in which the Italian scientists were placed ran counter to several clauses (1, 4, 5 and 6) of the National Assessment Charter adopted in France (see appendix). In the case of the CNRS Charter, clauses 1 (‘No confidentiality clause may apply when the assessment made reveals the possibility of a risk, particular relating to the environment or health’) and 6 (‘Within the framework of an assessment, CNRS can elucidate and evaluate the different options possible for action but is not obliged to make recommendations’) could have applied in principle. The dramatic events in Aquila, and the legal consequences that followed, show the need to consider the role of the scientific expert in situations of crisis and the protocols of obligation within which his or her action should be framed.

We live in a time when what scientists say is coming under public challenge. In particular, it seems increasingly hard for scientists to maintain their status as experts in the light of the explosion in immediate methods of communication. Paradoxically, political and democratic life seems to be withering before the powers of certain experts. This is particularly clear in the economic domain, where we are witnessing a form of political withdrawal. The growing influence of groups of self-styled experts, to the detriment of democratic representation, is helping to give experts a negative image among a public deprived of its prerogatives, an image that rebounds on our disciplines.

Within an atmosphere of frustration towards experts whose efficacy is perceived to be little evidenced by recent experience (mad cow disease, asbestos, Aquila, economic crisis, etc.…), there is a plethora of voices clamouring in the public sphere, justified by a relativism according to which every viewpoint is of equal value. Of course, every point of view has the same right of expression in the social arena, but it is right that scientific views should lay claim to particular status, arising from their method of construction, peer review procedures and well-defined ethical practices.

Our perspective is that full value needs to be restored to the analyses of scientists, who are members of society with no special privileges, justified in their opinions solely by scientific pertinence. This pertinence is not measured by the conclusions we may reach in a particular case, but by the method we use. The subject of expert assessment has already been extensively studied; the charters already published (CNRS Charter, National Charter, COMETS ruling) provide responses to many ethical questions raised by expert assessment. Here, we will concentrate on the specific questions associated with situations of crisis.

In a situation of crisis entailing a potential risk, two factors can considerably complicate application of the principles expressed in the charters. First, the client’s need to take a decision very quickly; and second the lack of a simple answer to the question asked. In a situation of uncertainty one must be aware of the reason why the scientific position may not apparently be corroborated by the facts, especially when it is expressed in terms of probabilities of occurrence and is therefore open to retrospective criticism. Natural risks, as illustrated in the recent case of the Aquila seismologists, are a good example of the difficulties encountered by experts. COMETS therefore focused its analysis on the questions specifically associated with emergency conditions, on the communication of scientific information characterised by great uncertainties and on the scientist’s position in the institutional system and in the public debate associated with emergencies.

[1] The reader will find at processoaquila.wordpress.com extensive factual information and detailed analyses compiled by a group of Italian geophysicists (A. Amato, M. Cocco, G. Cultrera, F. Galadini, L. Margheriti, C. Nostro, D. Pantosti , INGV working group for the information on the L’Aquila trial)