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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”.

PROJECTS in progress

  • The public commitment of researchers : although the public commitment of certain researchers is not a new reality, it is presented today in a partially renewed light that leads COMETS to question the issues and modalities of an “ethics of public commitment”.
  • The neurocognitive technologies : in the vast field of neurotechnologies, COMETS analyses those intended to be applied to the “developing brain”, in the field of education and recreation, and questions the ethical values that should guide their implementation. This work is carried out in conjunction with the INSERM Ethics Committee.
  • The campaigns of opportunity : referral to the CNRS

Opinion n°2022-43 - Integrating environmental issues into research practices – An ethical responsibility

Presentation of the Opinion 

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SUMMARY – COMETS was asked by the CNRS President to address the issue of the environmental impact of scientific research. This formal internal request comes at a time when the research community is deeply concerned about the sector’s responsibility towards environmental challenges. There is very broad agreement on the need for the research sector, like any other sector, to play its part in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. After establishing its carbon footprint, the CNRS is now actively setting up a transition plan. There are, however, significant differences in opinion when it comes to choosing practical steps to follow. Should all research that has or may have a negative environmental impact—remote sites, energy-intensive experimentation, or intrusion into a fragile environment, for example—be banned? How can environmental issues be reconciled with what are a priori contradictory demands for ‘excellence’ and competitiveness in research? Should research ethics now be supplemented by ‘environmental ethics’? Would such a step not hinder the ability of research to produce knowledge and innovative solutions, including responses to environmental damage? Because the positive or negative environmental impact of research raises many questions about the values, purpose and place of research in relation to what is a major issue for society, it must be approached not only from a scientific or political angle, but also from an ethical angle.

In this opinion, COMETS first considers that taking into account the environmental impacts of research should be considered as part of research ethics, in the same way as respect for human beings or for animals subject to experiments. Like the notion of ‘responsible research and innovation’, research ethics implies thinking about the effects of research on society, so it is the collective responsibility of the research community as a whole to factor in its environmental dimension.

COMETS understands this responsibility in a broad sense: it requires thinking about how to limit the footprint of ‘everyday’ research practices (buying better and less, optimising the use of digital technology, limiting travel and work-related trips (hereinafter referred to as ‘scientific missions’), improving the energy performance of buildings); but it must also lead us to consider the environmental footprint of research topics and the ways in which they can be addressed, for two reasons. Firstly, an approach designed to limit the carbon footprint is essential but inadequate in view of the challenges involved in preserving the biosphere (combating shrinking biodiversity and chemical pollution, preserving the health of ecosystems, etc.). Secondly, while research must—like any other activity—limit the footprint of its practices, its specific purpose is to produce knowledge in the service of society. This remit confers on it the particular responsibility of also questioning the uses that may be made of this knowledge (in particular its transformation into innovations) and how such uses can meet the problems encountered by society or, on the contrary, perpetuate and even aggravate them., The research community must therefore ask itself to what extent the use or development of a major piece of equipment (digital twin, particle accelerator, supercomputer) or work on a particular topic (synthetic biology, plant genome editing) is likely to have a negative impact on the biosphere, or to support unsustainable production or consumption patterns in the medium or long term, etc. Conversely, research must maximise its role as a driving force in producing and capitalising on knowledge that will enable solutions to be found to the ongoing environmental upheavals. While we should be wary of relying too much on the development of disruptive technologies in a relevant time frame, it is necessary to guide research more towards the pursuit of knowledge and solutions conducive to the transformation of society (multiplication of research programmes in this direction, with interdisciplinary bridges between applied and fundamental research that could support them, etc.).

COMETS is aware that environmental considerations are already an integral part of research (in fields such as chemistry, biology and nuclear energy, for example, experiments are subject to environmental standards; some research calls make funding conditional on the absence of environmental impact; many research programmes are designed to facilitate ecological transitions, etc.). COMETS is also mindful that many members of the research community are and have been in the vanguard, highlighting environmental degradation, alerting public authorities and seeking innovative solutions. It is precisely because of this particular role of research that COMETS insists on the importance of including the environment in the ethical issues facing this community. It considers that this approach, far from hindering the freedom, creativity and quality of research, is likely to encourage the development of research that is attentive to societal issues and relevant in the eyes of both civil society and the research community as a whole.

COMETS then discusses how the responsibility of the research community towards the environment should be exercised in practical situations. It is not up to the committee to arbitrate, labelling as ‘ethical’ or ‘unethical’ the often complex choices to be made in the name of this responsibility with regard to their environmental impact (how can environmental preservation be reconciled with other imperatives of all kinds, whether human health, the training of young people, scientific sovereignty, etc.? Should we prioritise the near future by prohibiting polluting research, or the distant future by banking on the potentially useful results of this research in preserving the environment?). It is up to the research community itself to open a broad debate on these issues. For COMETS, this is a prerequisite, well before any ’environmental assessment’ bodies or criteria are set up for research projects; while these are far from unnecessary, they could foster the routinisation of a questioning process that requires, first and foremost, in-depth collective deliberation. What is at stake is not only the awareness of the research community at large, but also the sharing of novel experiences between laboratories; the search for a good balance between frugality of research practices and too many administrative requirements; exchanges between research communities whose environmental impacts, needs and objectives are very different and between which it is advisable to prevent any risk of stigmatisation and division; an overall deliberation on research orientations and how they can meet a growing demand for justification by civil society; in the longer term, the adoption of guidelines.

COMETS recommends that this debate be supported as much as possible with tools, methodologies and, more generally, a scientifically sound theoretical framework shared within the research community. With this in mind, it first emphasises the importance of measuring environmental impacts and, to this end, building up knowledge on them, which is essential for an informed discussion and the identification of indicators and levers for action. COMETS is aware of the difficulties that such a measure raises, especially when it concerns the impact of research topics (the methods available are limited, and the time lapse between the choice of a subject and its possible impact on the environment makes any ex ante assessment complex). However, the committee notes that there has been an increase in work on the measurement of environmental impacts and the contribution of research to these impacts, and insists on the need to consider this a real field of research to be developed.

COMETS also calls for the environmental impact of research to be addressed from a proportionality perspective. While it is the ethical responsibility of research to systematically address this impact, any finding or prospect of an adverse impact does not theoretically constitute an obstacle to conducting research. The negative environmental impact must be weighed against the positive contribution of this research to the environment itself or to other values such as human health, the networking ability of young researchers and scientific geopolitics, whether in the medium or long term. In the face of various forces that lead to the expected benefits being exaggerated, proportionality implies defining, explaining and justifying the reasons for considering choosing one particular research practice, subject or item of equipment over another, and all the expected consequences.

COMETS is well aware of the operational difficulties that these recommendations imply, but believes that, given the magnitude of the challenges to be met, the research community cannot afford not to take such an approach.

Recommendations to CNRS management and research staff

Following its analysis, COMETS recommends:

  1. Recognising that consideration of the environment is an integral part of research ethics; affirming in this respect the responsibility of research players to consider their activity in the light of environmental issues; this responsibility concerns not only the footprint of research practices but more generally the negative or positive environmental impact that the choice of a particular research subject and a particular way of addressing it (the research path) can have on the environment in the broadest sense, whether in the short, medium or long term.
  1. Increasing the number of discussion forums enabling all research staff to debate the issues and scope of this responsibility.

Research laboratories appear to be the natural place to conduct this debate. In this respect, COMETS supports the request made by the CNRS President and the Conférence des Presidents d’Université (CPU, now France Universités) to appoint one person in each research unit as the sustainable development officer.

The debate should also be conducted in wider forums than laboratories, at the level of local, national or international scientific communities (CNRS institutes, other research organisations, university departments, research groups, scientific communities sharing the use of major research facilities, etc.) but also between these communities (academies and learned societies, scientific boards).

  1. Providing the debate with a scientifically sound methodological framework that is shared within the research community. This framework should at the very least be based on two principles: the first is that of environmental impact measurement, itself supported by knowledge that has been built up on these impacts, and the second is of proportionality which, taking into account the peculiarities of each situation on a case-by-case basis, weighs up all the negative and positive impacts of research. With regard to measuring impacts, COMETS:

– supports initiatives taken to build up knowledge on the environmental impacts of research (greenhouse gas audits of laboratories, the CNRS and its institutes, in addition to research equipment);

– encourages pursuing such audits and recommends that the supervisory authorities facilitate matters, for example by simplifying the completion of an audit in the case of laboratories with multiple supervisory authorities;

– recommends that the CNRS and scientific foresight bodies support and undertake research to better measure the environmental impacts (greenhouse gases, pollution, damage to biodiversity, etc.) of new fields of research or the continuation of ongoing research;

– stresses the importance of developing an ‘environmental impact culture’ within the scientific community, by proposing, among other things, training courses and interdisciplinary thematic schools on this subject.

  1. More specifically addressing CNRS management, COMETS:

– recommends that the CNRS sustain and strengthen the means it uses to assess its impact on the environment in order to promote organisational learning and the acquisition of consolidated experience;

– stresses the importance of recognising and facilitating the ability of laboratories to provide innovative solutions for environmentally friendly research; calls for support of approaches based on local laboratory experience; recommends that the CNRS should create an open database of innovations of all kinds developed by laboratories and make it accessible, particularly to research organisations;

– encourages training departments to: raise awareness and train staff in the environmental dimension of research ethics; recruit staff to organise and run collaborative workshops and develop an ‘interdisciplinary culture of environmental impact’; pursue their efforts to enable research staff, regardless of their status, to devote time to the issue of integrating environmental issues into research as part of their job;

– recommends supporting research community members wishing to redirect their activities towards practices and subjects likely to contribute to better environmental sustainability.

In its relations with public and private decision-makers, the CNRS should give greater support to and highlight research community output (whether research, expert appraisals, alerts, etc.) that is likely to inform debates and stimulate action in favour of the environment.

5.- COMETS encourages:

 the bodies responsible for programming and funding research;

 the bodies responsible for assessing researchers;

– the bodies of the National Committee for Scientific Research responsible for planning future research fields 

to reflect on how they can better factor the environmental impact of research into their work.

Opinion n°2021-42 - Scientific communication during a health crisis : profusion, value and abuse

Approved on 25 june 2021.

Presentation of the Opinion

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SUMMARY – In this Opinion, COMETS addresses the multiple forms of scientific communication in the context of the health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic due to SARS-CoV-2. The hindsight of almost two years of crisis is drawn upon to make an initial assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of this communication. We first examine how the crisis has affected communication within the scientific community. We then show how the relevance of the communication offered to the public through various sources of information has been decisive in citizens’ perception of the crisis and in their acceptance of the scientific discourse. We address the issue of the relationship between the remit of scientific experts and the imperatives of decision-makers. Finally, we discuss the difficulties faced by scientists when confronted with citizens’ distrust of science and the emergence of ‘scientific populism’. 

The Opinion begins with a positive observation: knowledge about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 has developed very rapidly due to an unprecedented mobilisation of the international scientific community, the sharing of data and an editorial policy of opening up publications, all of which are the consequences of the recent advances made possible by open science. However, COMETS also takes a critical look at certain editorial abuses and, in particular, at the violations of scientific integrity and ethical standards that accompanied the publication of questionable work on the treatment of COVID-19 with hydroxychloroquine. More generally, COMETS deplores the irresponsible behaviour of some researchers who are ignorant of, or deliberately disregard, the fundamentals of the scientific process, i.e. rigour, honesty, reliability and transparency of the methods used, with a critical peer review of publications. The abuses observed have serious consequences because of their impact on health and because they contribute to citizens’ distrust of science and scientists. This mistrust is all the more difficult to overcome as knowledge about the virus and ensuing pandemic is constantly evolving, and any information that is considered true one day may be contradicted the next. Different sources of information—whether institutions, the press or media, but also social networks—have been decisive in informing citizens. COMETS wishes to underline the duty of the whole scientific community to share knowledge with the public and commends the difficult and indispensable work of journalists. However, it has to be said that there have been many abuses: some mainstream media have fostered communication that is deliberately polemical for its sensationalistic ‘entertainment’ value, thus maintaining the confusion between scientific truth and opinion. The media have also been used as a platform for scientists to develop questionable theories. New information mediators—internet and social networks—have also contributed to the public’s disinformation and the spread of conspiracy theories. COMETS has attempted to analyse the reasons that have led some citizens to adhere to these conspiracy theories and how a wave of scientific populism, in which opinion takes precedence over scientific fact, has been propagated.

COMETS has also addressed the sensitive issue of the link between scientific expertise and political decision-making in a crisis context, and ultimately the acceptability of the expert’s message when it is communicated to citizens. 

In conclusion, crisis communication has uncovered a multifaceted and far-reaching crisis in scientific communication. One of the challenges in solving it is undoubtedly to raise the level of scientific culture of both citizens and policy makers, which is an ethical duty to which researchers must contribute.

Opinion n°2021-41 - Science, risk and the precautionary principle

Approved on 10 march 2021.

Presentation of the Opinion

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SUMMARY – Science has greatly improved the condition of humanity. It has contributed to the rise in global well-being. It has helped to meet the major challenges facing human societies, and there is every reason to hope that it will continue to do so. However, some of the applications of research lead to serious and irreversible risks for both individuals and the environment and, consequently, for the world in which future generations will have to live.

Fortunately, advances in research are also helping to identify, pre-empt and protect against these risks. The precautionary principle thus aims to take advantage of these scientific findings to take protective measures, without waiting until we are able to precisely quantify the extent of the perils we may face. There is therefore tension between the progress of knowledge, the technological developments that such findings bring about and the awareness of the risks they entail.

The precautionary principle stems from the 2004 Environment Charter, enshrined in the French Constitution in 2005. Its scope has gradually been broadened from the environment to health. Its historical and philosophical origins lie in the concepts of prudence, prevention and precaution. However, while prevention relates to proven risks, the precautionary principle relates to counterfactual risks, which are not yet proven by observation but can nonetheless be foreseen.

Risk assessment is based on the results of the work of expert researchers who are consulted by public authorities before a decision is taken. Given the margin of uncertainty inherent in scientific research, the complexity of the problems addressed and the importance of the human, social and economic issues at stake, these experts must have a multidisciplinary approach, proceed in complete transparency, avoid conflicts of interest with the industrial groups involved and, generally speaking, comply with the rules of scientific integrity. Furthermore, these researchers must be attentive to the reactions of their fellow citizens, who may sometimes find it difficult to grasp the reality of the potential risk posed by certain technologies, and make excessive use of the precautionary principle. However, some citizens may, on the contrary, be the informed discoverers of real, as yet unidentified hazards and their voice should be heard.

We wish here to consider, with discernment, the moral responsibility of researchers themselves with regard to risks arising from the application of their work. It is clearly sometimes difficult to appreciate the consequences of some innovative research, for example in the field of genetics, digital technology or artificial intelligence. Indeed, research projects such as these often involve risks that have not yet been fully explored, whether they could affect our personal lives or the evolution of society as a whole. It is therefore important to take into account both the scientific aspects of the precautionary principle and the ethical issues that its application may pose, whether societal, economic or political.

Finally, from a legal point of view, the precautionary principle raises questions about the indirect responsibility of scientists when judges request their expertise. The legal status of scientific evidence, in the presence of uncertainty or debate, should then give rise to in-depth reflection, in which scientists should be more closely involved than they are today. COMETS sees this as an opportunity to bring together researchers on the one hand and legal players on the other.

Recommendations are made both to research institutions and their employees.

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.

Presentation of the Opinion

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SUMMARY – Science has greatly improved the condition of humanity. It has contributed to the rise in global well-being. It has helped to meet the major challenges facing human societies, and there is every reason to hope that it will continue to do so. However, some of the applications of research lead to serious and irreversible risks for both individuals and the environment and, consequently, for the world in which future generations will have to live.

Fortunately, advances in research are also helping to identify, pre-empt and protect against these risks. The precautionary principle thus aims to take advantage of these scientific findings to take protective measures, without waiting until we are able to precisely quantify the extent of the perils we may face. There is therefore tension between the progress of knowledge, the technological developments that such findings bring about and the awareness of the risks they entail.

The precautionary principle stems from the 2004 Environment Charter, enshrined in the French Constitution in 2005. Its scope has gradually been broadened from the environment to health. Its historical and philosophical origins lie in the concepts of prudence, prevention and precaution. However, while prevention relates to proven risks, the precautionary principle relates to counterfactual risks, which are not yet proven by observation but can nonetheless be foreseen.

Risk assessment is based on the results of the work of expert researchers who are consulted by public authorities before a decision is taken. Given the margin of uncertainty inherent in scientific research, the complexity of the problems addressed and the importance of the human, social and economic issues at stake, these experts must have a multidisciplinary approach, proceed in complete transparency, avoid conflicts of interest with the industrial groups involved and, generally speaking, comply with the rules of scientific integrity. Furthermore, these researchers must be attentive to the reactions of their fellow citizens, who may sometimes find it difficult to grasp the reality of the potential risk posed by certain technologies, and make excessive use of the precautionary principle. However, some citizens may, on the contrary, be the informed discoverers of real, as yet unidentified hazards and their voice should be heard.

We wish here to consider, with discernment, the moral responsibility of researchers themselves with regard to risks arising from the application of their work. It is clearly sometimes difficult to appreciate the consequences of some innovative research, for example in the field of genetics, digital technology or artificial intelligence. Indeed, research projects such as these often involve risks that have not yet been fully explored, whether they could affect our personal lives or the evolution of society as a whole. It is therefore important to take into account both the scientific aspects of the precautionary principle and the ethical issues that its application may pose, whether societal, economic or political.

Finally, from a legal point of view, the precautionary principle raises questions about the indirect responsibility of scientists when judges request their expertise. The legal status of scientific evidence, in the presence of uncertainty or debate, should then give rise to in-depth reflection, in which scientists should be more closely involved than they are today. COMETS sees this as an opportunity to bring together researchers on the one hand and legal players on the other.

Recommendations are made both to research institutions and their employees.

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

Approved at the COMETS plenary session of 08 April 2019.

Presentation of the Opinion 

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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

Presentation of the Opinion 

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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

Presentation of the Opinion

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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

Presentation of the Opinion

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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

Presentation of the Opinion

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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

Presentation of the Opinion

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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

Presentation of the Opinion

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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 affecting public research professions undergoing change

 Approved February 2014

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SUMMARY – Over the last twenty years or so, public research has been undergoing deep-rooted change. While the motivation and enthusiasm of researchers and faculty members have generally remained intact, the proliferation of tasks and the constraints associated with their job mean that the time devoted to research per se is decreasing, and that tensions and disparities may appear within teams. The time spent on seeking funding has increased considerably, administrative and management tasks are increasingly burdensome, growing links with the private sector can potentially lead to fraud, and the increasing attention rightly paid to society’s expectations and concerns is very time-consuming. Assessment procedures, which focus on research results, do not sufficiently take into account the multiple tasks expected of researchers and faculty members. Moreover, the methods used for the assessment itself are sometimes open to criticism, in particular by the inappropriate use of bibliometric indicators, the excessive importance given to publications in the “major” journals of “general interest” and the accentuation of trends in the choice of subjects, with a decrease in risk-taking.

Considering that these difficulties may be responsible for conflicts of values or conduct not in line with scientific integrity, COMETS makes the following recommendations:

  1. In order to increase the time devoted to research without jeopardising laboratory resources, it is important for laboratory directors and team leaders to conduct a reasoned policy of responding to calls for tender and to ensure that all their requests are consistent with the teams’ core research themes.
  2. To avoid discouraging researchers facing the time-consuming complexity inherent to compiling applications and following up certain research projects (European contracts, French funding agency ANR, etc.), adding value to their work (drafting of patents) and administrative tasks (reports for the French High Council for Evaluation of Higher Education and Research (HCERES), etc.), COMETS recommends that the CNRS create qualified and appropriate administrative and scientific support, which is currently insufficient.
  3. Risk-taking should be encouraged. To this end, it is important not to penalise researchers with insufficient publications as a result of such risk-taking; qualitative assessments should in this case be used to ensure that their scientific projects are moving ahead smoothly. In addition, recurrent endowments must be generous enough to act as a science policy tool and an incentive for risk-taking. (See the COMETS Opinion of 2010).
  4. Qualitative peer review of research should remain the rule. It should be conducted using criteria that take into account the situation of the field of research, the context in which it is being conducted and, where relevant, its character at the interfaces. No assessment should rely exclusively on a purely quantitative count based on bibliometric indicators or the number of patents. Similarly, the temptation to give excessive importance to the “major” journals of “general interest” must be controlled.
  5. COMETS considers that the dissemination and popularisation of knowledge, as well as its exploitation to create value by developing innovations, are increasingly essential tasks among researchers. Consequently, it recommends that research findings should not be exclusively prioritised during assessments, and that these tasks should be integrated more equitably.
  6. In order to avoid tensions detrimental to collaboration between researchers and faculty members within research units and teams, it is essential to take into account differences in status and to apply a principle of equity to assessments. Acknowledging that research does not occupy an equivalent place in each profession, assessments should be carried out according to tailored criteria. In a context of international competition for both training and research, the quality of tuition must be considered on the same footing as the quality of research during assessments.
  7. Preventive action must be taken to avoid tensions linked to participation in multiple activities and their consequent remuneration. Organisations should provide staff with a summary of the applicable rules (percentage of time, maximum remuneration) and enforce them. Researchers and faculty members alike should indicate in their title and work records (and in the annual CRAC reports in the case of researchers) their various paid activities, whether or not they are related to the subject of their research.
  8. COMETS recommends that unit directors receive training to enable them to identify which secondary activities of researchers in their laboratories are authorised in the realm of consultancy and expert appraisal, and which are not.
  9. COMETS suggests that the CNRS ask the Observatoire des Sciences et Techniques (OST) for a statistical survey on accumulated remuneration according to discipline, location and the nature of activities.

Opinion n°2013-27 - Natural risks, assessment and crisis situation

Approved september 30, 2013

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SELF-REFERRAL – 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)

Opinion n°2012-26 - The need for procedures to be set up within the CNRS to foster research integrity

Approved august 24, 2012

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SUMMARY – After analysis, COMETS concludes that documented cases of misconduct in research activities are on the rise and lead to conflictual situations. The changing face of research careers and the various pressures on those involved are among the causes. At the laboratory level, the limits of what is permissible are poorly defined. Allegations of ethical misconduct reported nationwide are handled on a case-by-case basis within one or other of the CNRS departments. Training in research integrity has not been institutionalised. Consequently, COMETS makes the following recommendations :

 1- The CNRS should consider appropriate methods for responding to staff questions on research integrity and handling contentious cases. Above all, it must ensure consistency between the practices of its various departments (legal affairs, human resources, thematic institutes, the general secretariat (SGCN) of the national committee for scientific research (CoNRS), the INSB ethics unit, mediation, COMETS ). COMETS recommends that an internal CNRS working group be set up with representatives from these various departments in order to review the procedures to be applied in the different situations and in particular to define how they relate to criminal law.

 2- Without creating a new structure for the time being, the CNRS could appoint a single, clearly identified contact person to receive all reports relating to ethical issues from CNRS entities throughout France.  This ethics adviser would make a preliminary analysis of the nature of the problem raised and would send the report to the relevant CNRS department. He or she would have a correspondent in each department and in COMETS.

 3- The CNRS should clearly define the procedures to be implemented to handle cases requiring the setting up of an ad hoc committee: constitution of the committee, definition of its missions, its mandate to carry out investigations and duty to submit conclusions to both the ethics adviser and to COMETS, then resolution of the problem by the CNRS department involved. The ad hoc committee would include an observer from COMETS, as recommended by the 2006 Opinion on scientific fraud.

 4- COMETS recommends that the CNRS set up training courses on research ethics in relation to staff status: seminars for new recruits to each of the different Institutes, appropriate training for unit directors, addition of an ethics component to thematic workshops, etc.

 5- COMETS encourages the CNRS to participate with other bodies in the preparation of a national charter on research integrity designed to be adopted by the French Ministry of Research and Higher Education. This work could be carried out with the participation of COMETS in conjunction with INSERM, which has a Research Integrity Office and has already instigated preliminary discussions on this subject with INRA.

 

Opinion n°2012-25 - The open access of scientific publications

Approved june 25, 2012

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SUMMARYThe COMETS (CNRS ethical committee) has deliberated on the issue of open access to scientific publications.

Scientific publications associate publishers and researchers’ communities. They have become the place of high tension and their various models face a problematic coexistence. Free access to scientific publications today is a strong recommendation of European or French funding agencies for research on public contracts. The COMETS is guided by two ethical principles: firstly sharing the basic scientific knowledge with the largest number, on the other hand the necessary evaluation of the results by the peer review system. Aware of the great diversity of practices, it makes the following general recommendations:

1 – The main objective of this recommendation is first to convince the CNRS to engage in an in-depth reflection on the importance of the issues about open access to scientific publications. It is urgent to coordinate this reflection with all actors: researchers, research institutes, universities, publishers and librarians, in order to offer researchers the best conditions – intellectual and economic- for the dissemination of their scientific work.

2 – The HAL open archive system, run by the CNRS, should be improved to better respond to the demands of researchers. An open archive, in the same way as scientific journals, needs an editorial board that sets its science policy and follows the deposits. The deposit on the HAL open archive should be strongly encouraged by the CNRS for all scientific publications in various scientific areas which are currently unevenly used. Note that optimizing HAL would be such as to strengthen the partnerships between the CNRS and other institutions, as was the case for example with INRIA.

3 – It is essential that the CNRS should reconsider its support policy to reviews while preserving the diversity of publishers. The modest-sized publishers, belonging mostly to learned societies or universities, must be supported in the present context of the evolution towards “open access gold” which could weaken them when facing powerful publishers.

4 – The direction of the CNRS should inform and advise researchers on the regime of intellectual property and copyright which concern them and encourage them not to waive their rights when submitting their articles, as it is often the case. Models of standard contract between publishers and institutions have existed also for years (SPARC, SCIENCE COMMONS, etc.) and are available to researchers in their negotiation with publishers particularly in the USA; the CNRS could follow this example. These recommendations, or even made compulsory, could help to dissuade researchers to publish in journals that require abusively the complete abandonment of the copyright with a view to producing excessive profits.

5 – Regarding some publishers’ unjustified fees for publication, the CNRS should join the initiatives taken by academic institutions to introduce a balance of power to obtain reasonable prices of subscriptions to scientific journals, along with the present actions in progress abroad.

Opinion n°2012-11 - The scientific assessor's integrity charter

Approved 2012

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SUMMARYFor a code of ethics applicable to scientific assessors. 

With the development of project-based research and the growing importance of team and staff ratings, researchers, engineers, technicians and administrative staff are increasingly faced with assessments. They themselves may be subjected to them when applying for funds, or they may subject others to them when called upon to appraise projects. It is thus becoming essential for the CNRS to define a set of common and shared principles on assessment. COMETS issued an Opinion on this topic[1] in 2004, but has never addressed the position of the assessor, even though this role may increasingly become a source of conflicts of interest and tensions within the communities involved, or even encourage deviant behaviour such as the appropriation of ideas or plagiarism. COMETS therefore considers it necessary for the CNRS to adopt ethical standards via an integrity charter for assessors that is in line with the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity drafted at the Second World Conference on Research Integrity in July 2010 and published in 2011 (see Annex). 

Although the CNRS has had a charter on expert appraisals since June 2011, this does not address ethical standards for assessments. Yet evaluation is a part of researchers’ activities, and currently occupies an increasing proportion of their time. It takes different forms depending on the discipline and its purpose. Its methods may be criticised, and its very principle is sometimes questioned on a philosophical level. However, although it is by nature imperfect, it is indispensable. The approach proposed by COMETS is to start deliberations from this difficulty instead of, as is often the case, ending with it. This focus on the general principles of assessment takes into account its inevitable practical difficulties. To this end, COMETS will propose a charter containing a series of rules of good conduct which it will be the duty of scientific staff to observe whenever they are called upon to participate in a group or give an individual expert opinion to assess, either a priori or a posteriori:

  • the activity of a colleague,
  • the work of a research team, laboratory or institution,
  • a research project.

This CNRS integrity charter will not replace the various charters imposed by research agencies or institutions for assessments in which CNRS researchers are participating. It will supplement such charters or be applied when there are no others. If there is a difference on certain issues between the CNRS charter and the charter of the agency or institution concerned, the CNRS staff involved will always be required to comply with the rules of this CNRS integrity charter and a fortiori those of the sponsor if they are more restrictive.

 Initially, the scientific assessor’s integrity charter will be brought to the attention of all CNRS staff. This code of ethics will be presented to those joining the CNRS, institute directors, research unit directors and during scientific integrity awareness sessions planned by COMETS. It will also be presented to other organisations upon request.

 In a second stage, the CNRS will endeavour to give the charter a status, for example by appending it to the rules for competitive selection processes, promotions and assessments provided for in the decree of 27 December 1984, so that it can serve as a reference for organising activities.

In a third stage, following initial feedback, the CNRS is planning to hold discussions with other research institutions or agencies in France and to develop the status of the charter so that it can serve as a general charter on integrity in research assessments.

[1] https://comite-ethique.cnrs.fr/avis-publies/ Opinion no. 2004-08

Opinion n°2011-24 - Relations between researchers and publishing houses

Approved june 30, 2011

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SUMMARY – The publication of research articles is taken care of by publishing houses whose role is de facto important in the life of the scientific community. They have indeed the responsibility of registering articles, the date of submission serving as a reference when anteriority is an issue, to organise the life of an editorial board consisting of acknowledged specialists, the heart of the modus operandi from an intellectual point of view, to manage publishing rights, most of the time given to the journal, to typeset articles in an issue and to make them accessible on paper and electronically, to disseminate information about the availability and the content of the journal and to archive the whole collection of articles.

The statement made by the COMETS analyzes some of the problems encountered by researchers in their relations with publishing houses, evaluates their consequences and suggests some measures to be taken to deal with them. The central role taken by communication through internet introduces a new context in which the current economical models for publishing, that have been used for more than a century, have to be revised. It gives the academic community an opportunity to control the overall process. It also represents new challenges that the commercial sector has taken up more quickly than the academic one that is less efficient when it comes to mobilizing quickly important resources.

 In the concluding part of this statement, one finds recommendations to deal with the issues raised, e.g. that CNRS gives its personnel better legal information on its situation when they publish an article in a journal, in particular in relation with the free use of it for non commercial purposes and for public archives, and/or when they negotiate access to journals. Within a few years, the control of the scientific publishing market has been taken, in several disciplines, by commercial companies or by learned societies using their journals to finance other types of activity. Public institutions, such as CNRS, should implement a strategy making it possible for entities, whose practices are more in line with the mission of their researchers, to develop a viable economic model for publishing.

Opinion n°2011-23 - Ethical aspects of the controversy about the climate

Approved june 30, 2011

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SUMMARY – Research on climate developed in the last 40 years or so to a new level thanks to the introduction of general models of circulation of the atmosphere and its interactions with environment on earth. Since some of these models have potentially a major impact on populations, the question was taken up at the United Nations level. This led to the creation of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a structure at the interface with the scientific community. In the context of hot and very publicized debates on the IPCC work, the President of CNRS asked the CNRS Ethics Committee (COMETS) to prepare a statement on ethical aspects of these debates, their interpretations and their impact in the public domain.

To prepare this discussion the COMETS chose to analyze under which conditions can function exchanges among the three groups of actors researchers, citizens and media. The statement considers ethical conditions that have to be satisfied in order that the controversy on climatic issues be developed in a useful way. This requires that these exchanges take place in « forums » of different formats: scientific forums (journals, specialized conferences), public forums (involving elected official or commissioned reports), forums for open debates (public enquiries, gallups), and general forums (blogs, open ). In such a scheme the IPCC has a special role.

The recommendations proposed at the end of the statement deal with several issues: how scientific research can take care of complexity that generates uncertainty; the necessary trust between scientists without which no interdisciplinary work can be built in depth; the rules of deontology and the value that must be given to expertise, and has to supersede the belonging to institutions; the growing role given to public debate in non reliable media; the place of debates between scientists on questions involving contacts with political institutions; and the indispensable plurality of of teams working on sensible issues.

Opinion n°2010-22 - Ethical aspects of the public support to project based research

Approved june 28, 2010

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SUMMARY – In the last twenty years, at a national as well as at an international level, public operators have changed their modus operandi vis-à-vis the research community. Now project-based support, that had remained marginal for a long time for a number of scientific communities, plays a central role. This way of financing research has consequences, that had not been anticipated, in view of the goals set initially, namely to optimize the investments, and to focus efforts on specific themes. This evolution induces a change in practices, that can affect both the content and the potential of creativity of research. Projet-based financing substantially modifies interpersonal relations in laboratories, in particular through the considerable increase in the number of temporary positions. Moreover, this mode of financing creates new responsibilities for researchers, who often end up not having the control of the final use of their work.

The statement issued by the COMETS on « Ethical aspects of the public support to project based research » present what is at stakes in this evolution and makes recommendations to researchers and their milieu, as well as to people in charge of issue and manage the calls, to overcome the bias identified.

 

Opinion n°2010-21 - Ethics of research in social experiment

Approved january 19, 2010

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SUMMARY – If the ethics of experimentation on the human body is incorporated into law since the Act of July 29, 1994, ethical issues raised by experimentation on human behaviour remain unsettled from a legal point of view, even though there is a growing body of research in social sciences using such methods. The CNRS Ethics Committee (COMETS) has already commented on the science of human behaviour in a statement issued on February 23, 2007, focusing on the risk faced by persons subject to. This review focuses on another aspect of the experiment on people, called the «social experiment», financed by public funds to support and give a basis to the reforms. In these experiments, the researcher is placed in the awkward position of being associated with the political decision-maker, or even being presented as a co-author. The issue takes a sharp turn when the funding for experimental programmes is competing with other forms of research. In this context, the ethical impact not only deals with the conditions in which the research is conducted, but also affects researchers in their dealings with supporters of the programmes, who are at the same time the ultimate decision makers in the realm of social policy.

 Without commenting on the political relevance of the use of experimental evaluations, and without interfering with the choice scholars can make to join a particular research programme, the COMETS proposes four ethical recommendations. The aim is to avoid confusion about the nature of researchers interventions in these programmes, to support the theoretical analysis of experimental research, and to preserve the diversity of approaches used in social issues.

Opinion n°2009-20 - For research integrity in information and communication science and technology (ICST)

Approved november 12, 2009

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SUMMARY – The CNRS Ethics Committee, COMETS, wished to address the issue of research integrity in Information and Communication Science and Technology (ICST).

Initial deliberations on this subject quickly led to the observation that, although ICST research practices raise ethical concerns — particularly in the use of personal data — the most salient point was a failure to take into account ethical issues related to the technologies resulting from the research (ICTs) as it was ongoing.

The changes brought about by ICTs are profoundly modifying the relationships and mediation between humans and their natural and artificial environment. People can now instantly, directly and universally address the whole world and, conversely, the whole world can address them. This new capability opens up many opportunities, but also creates many problems.

 ICTs can change human behaviour right from the outset, either through the possibilities they offer or implicitly because of their methodological or architectural approach. The immaterial nature of the data they process leads to the creation of a new world that is parallel to the real world, with different boundaries and rules that often remain undefined.

 It is striking that, in this fast-developing field, major problems arise a posteriori, once these powerful technologies have already been deployed on a large scale. It is thus very difficult to respond due to a lack of preparation. There are many examples of this every day in the news: large-scale network failures, freedom of expression issues and rumour-mongering over the Internet, management of copyright and similar rights, digital surveillance, protection of personal data, voting machines, principles of sovereignty, etc. The problems encountered are often due to the rush to move from the design stage of these technologies to their mass use in a context dominated by the importance of the economic stakes in a global market.

 We therefore believe that the priority in terms of ICST research integrity should be to equip ourselves with the means to conduct research on ICT ethics. This research must identify how we may live together comfortably by making the most of the tremendous opportunities offered by these technologies — which offer capabilities such as expression, access and dialogue to many more people than before — while limiting their toxic effects. It should be conducted in partnership with researchers from different disciplines, first and foremost ICST and Social and Human Sciences (SHS), and in relation to society.

 With this in mind, the first step involved analysing the main areas of ICT application that raise ethical issues. This analysis focused on positive and negative aspects of the direct impact of these technologies on people, the personal domain and beyond, on cyborgs, bots and agents, and took into account the new state of affairs linked to the digitised and mediatised relationships of people to their environment (understood in a broad sense: others, the society they form, information, education, the economy, the State, cultures, etc., in addition to the physical world, objects and the like). It revealed the huge number of issues raised in many of these areas.

 Furthermore, it is necessary to take possession of the conceptual apparatus for ethical reflection on ICTs in order to explore the questions raised by the emergence of new contexts related to the changes they bring to the “gratuity economy”, the notions of common good and responsibility, the control of personal data, and so on.

 This leads us to the conclusion that there is a need to strengthen ICST research integrity:

– in research activities themselves,

– by deliberations, carried out sufficiently in advance, on the consequences of research findings. Indeed, several examples in the fields of electronic mail, copyright protection, trace management, linguistic diversity or bots have shown how such deliberations could help, or could have helped, to determine the avenues of research to be prioritised or supplemented. This would help better prepare the deployment of technologies, facilitate their adaptation to reality and to changes in observed uses, and circumvent or prevent anticipated or actual problems, going so far as to identify the emergence of new economic and societal models induced by the arrival of these technologies,

– while ensuring that the machines involved are capable, during their operation, of complying with the ethical principles expressed.

Following an analysis of the national and international structures already working on these issues, COMETS believes it is necessary to strengthen this mechanism and puts forward the following recommendations[1] that reflect the conclusions of its deliberations :

 Recommendation 1. Set up a national Research Integrity Committee for Information and Communication Science and Technology.

 This Research Integrity Committee for ICST (known by its French acronym, “CERSTIC”) would be tasked with ensuring the implementation of an ethical reflection on ICST research leading to the development of a new technology, and proposing research to respond to possible aberrations and risks during the deployment of this technology, thus establishing an interactive loop between ethics and technology. CERSTIC would be common to national research organisations working in the field of ICST (the CNRS, INRIA, the CEA, Institut Télécom, etc.) and universities. Multidisciplinary in nature, it would include researchers in ICST and other fields, in particular Social and Human Sciences (SHS), whether they are philosophers, lawyers, economists, sociologists, anthropologists or ethnologists, for example, as well as participants from industry. It would work with current or future ICT usage observatories in order to be able to pick up the weak signals of new uses. It would also establish links with French and European state or political bodies in order to provide them with a scientific outlook, and with French and European ethics committees to ensure that the field of ICST is taken into account in their considerations on ethical issues.

 The need for entities playing a role equivalent to that of France’s National Consultative Ethics Committee for Health and Life Sciences (CCNE) and the CNRS’s operational ethics committee focusing on life sciences (COPé) in the field of ICST will have to be established, as will the relationships between such entities and CERSTIC, which will focus on “upstream” aspects related to research.

 Recommendation 2. Support joint ICST-SHS research projects in the field of ICT integrity. Such a programme, supported at national level or within organisations, would involve ICST and SHS researchers working together both to draft the content of the call for proposals and to manage the programme, including selecting, conducting and monitoring projects. These projects would in particular address the interactive ethics/technology loop.

 Recommendation 3. Facilitate access to data by providing the necessary infrastructure and adapting the legal provisions relating to their use for research purposes. It is important for researchers to have access to the data they need to conduct quality research. This can be made possible by facilitating the production, collection and dissemination of these data. It can also be achieved by providing researchers with legal assistance that takes care of all the formalities to be completed, while at the same time ensuring that they are informed about the nature of pertinent legal provisions — including the management of intellectual and industrial property rights — and provides answers to their questions. Discussions could be held with the CNIL to see how the legal provisions relating to the use of personal data for research purposes could be better tailored to the needs of research while protecting privacy.

 Recommendation 4. Better identify the ethical implications of ICST research. To this end, assessment structures should suggest that the researchers and laboratories concerned include an “ethics” section in their various assessment files (recruitment, activity, promotion, projects). An entity from CERSTIC could also identify in the research work carried out by laboratories any likely to raise ethical issues, in order to alert researchers and laboratories.

 Recommendation 5. Set up training in ICT research integrity. Such training will be encouraged in the framework of university courses, in particular doctoral schools, and more specifically in the framework of summer schools on a particular subject. We also propose setting up an international master’s degree on “Ethics and ICTs”.

 Recommendation 6. Raise awareness among researchers of the stakes involved in ICST research integrity. The goal is to make ICST researchers aware of the ethical issues related to the technologies resulting from their research and make SHS researchers aware of the importance of considering these issues. This may be carried out through videos, case studies, comic books or cartoons, for example, along with a website on these issues that could include a wiki and a blog. A national symposium could also be held to raise awareness of these issues among researchers and citizens alike. Depending on its conclusions, this symposium could become permanent or give birth to a national, French-speaking or European association.

 Recommendation 7. Encourage ICST research in France focusing on key areas related to integrity issues. This is in particular the case for research into machine ethics (such as the Moral Machine platform) and social computing, a research subject covering the study of the use of ICTs in a cultural and institutional context that is currently being explored mainly in the United States, Northern Europe and Great Britain. Other fields are also concerned, however, including digital cognition, “intelligent” agents, data archiving and preservation, and certification of Open Source codes. Such research could be carried out within projects, teams, joint project teams or laboratories, whether they already exist or need to be created.

 Recommendation 8. Avoid empty announcements and provide the public with objective information on the progress of ICST research. Sensationalism is common in this high-profile sector but can be counter-productive if an announcement is not followed by the expected results within a reasonable period of time. Care must therefore be taken to remain measured when making announcements. In suitable fields (language processing, computer vision, robotics, brain-machine interfaces, etc.), assessment campaigns can be used to objectively measure the performance of systems resulting from research (benchmarking). This may require the establishment of an infrastructure to produce and disseminate test data and conduct assessments, enabling the actual state of scientific and technological advances to be estimated and communicated.

[1] To differentiate them from more operational aspects, general considerations are written in italics

Opinion n°2009-19 - The role of the scientific community in the debate on chemicals

Approved september 21, 2009

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SUMMARY – On the occasion of the implementation of the REACH Regulation, at the initiative of the CNRS Director General.

Voted on 18 December 2006 by the European Parliament, the European REACH Regulation (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) came into force on 1 June 2007. At the request of the French Ministry of Ecology, Energy, Sustainable and Regional Development (MEEDDAT) and the Ministry of Industry, the CNRS and the French National Institute for Research in the Environment and Health (INERIS) have set up a joint working group entitled “Chemicals: what are the scientific challenges in the REACH context?” with a view to producing a collective expert appraisal. At the same time, the CNRS Director General requested that this expert appraisal be accompanied by an analysis of the ethical issues posed by application of the regulation.

REACH is intended to be a major step forward in controlling the health and environmental impacts of both old and new chemicals placed on the market. It requires the risk knowledge gap to be bridged and full transparency to be ensured by manufacturers and importers towards public authorities, users and consumers. However, the implementation of these principles raises many questions (effective organisation of transparency, exact criteria for considering the substitution of substances of very high concern (SVHC) by alternatives, etc.). Moreover, as the REACH Regulation is planned to be updated in the light of new knowledge, many choices will have to be made in the years to come (will nanoparticles or substances produced in quantities of less than 1 tonne per year be covered by the regulation which, for the moment, does not apply to them?)

Far from being strictly technical, most of these choices have an ethical dimension. The first question to consider is what the ethical conditions for applying the regulation should be. How should research be conceived in a field that is now resolutely subject to the requirements of sustainable development and the precautionary principle? How can an expert appraisal be organised so as to meet the imperative of social trust that underlies the chemical sector in particular? To what should the obligation of transparency refer in a sector traditionally characterised by industrial secrecy?

More generally, it is worth emphasising the ethical implications of scientists’ contribution to the debate on the implementation and development of the REACH Regulation. Whether their participation concerns the assessment and cost/benefit analysis of chemicals or the setting by public authorities of a level of chemical risk deemed acceptable, their contribution to this societal debate appears essential, especially since they have been little involved until now.

COMETS thus wishes to contribute to a debate at the crossroads of major societal issues without interfering in the work of the CNRS/INERIS working group but evolving in step with it.

Opinion n°2007-18 - Ethics and behavioural sciences

Approved february 23, 2007

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SUMMARY – 1. Knowledge of human behaviour, in all its forms, is an essential element in understanding human beings and our place among other living beings.

  1. Over time, in a desire for scientific understanding, a number of approaches have been developed in order to construct this knowledge on solid foundations and analyses supported by research. The ethological approach (behaviour dependent on instinct), the behaviourist approach (direct relationship between behaviour and external stimuli), the cognitivist approach (focused on mental states) and psychoanalytical approach (focused on the individual’s subjectivity) have in turn been developed and now overlap.
  1. This research stands at a point of tension between two dimensions of the human being: behaviour from a deterministic stance on the one hand, and an individual’s free will and inalienable rights on the other. Both the research itself and its results have repercussions that go beyond the laboratory: by shaping individual and collective attitudes to societal issues such as education, social protection, the treatment of behavioural disorders and care for the mentally ill, it can become a means of governance and a power issue.

Each approach thus raises its own ethical issues, whether in the social field and its organisation, with regard to individuals (eugenics, meliorism, etc.); by the naturalisation of behaviour (action on cerebral mechanisms, neuro-marketing); or during the treatment of behavioural disorders.

  1. This inventory underlines the importance of ethical deliberations that are sufficiently comprehensive to encourage vigilance with regard to research closely affecting the individual, yet sufficiently detailed to provide researchers with guidelines for their daily practices.
  1. The legal framework is set by the Act of 20 December 1988 on “The protection of persons involved in biomedical research”, which is applicable to research on human behaviour. However, this research also includes specific features that the current law does not necessarily take into account. Sometimes framed by codes of conduct respecting the fundamental principles — freedom, physical integrity, equity — of respect for persons, research can also take place without adequate ethical considerations. It is therefore necessary to go beyond the legal framework.
  1. Following this first stage of reflection, the committee proposes four recommendations:

Recommendation 1. Mental well-being and its corollary, mental risk, are poorly defined notions that should be the subject of specific deliberations by the CNRS’s scientific bodies. These deliberations should then be reflected in experimental practice in the form of guidelines for researchers.

Recommendation 2. Set up a science and technology watch committee on developments in behavioural sciences. Composed of scientists and individuals from civil society, including industry, this group should keep abreast of developments in behavioural sciences in relation to the various disciplines that contribute to them, and try to foresee their ethical impact. It should operate under the supervision of the Management Board and in close collaboration with COMETS, the CNRS Ethics Committee.

Recommendation 3. Organise continuous training in the ethics of behavioural sciences and techniques, supplementing that of conventional education. This training should cover the historical, philosophical and ethical aspects of behavioural sciences, paying particular attention to the comparison of points of view. The CNRS should strongly encourage researchers and doctoral students to follow these courses.

Recommendation 4. Dialogue with the public. This dialogue should address both the expected progress in our knowledge of humans and their inner workings and the risks stemming from the misuse of the findings — or what are presented as the findings — of behavioural science research. The scientific community itself could and should take the initiative to develop this dialogue through meetings with the public.

Opinion n°2007-17 - The need for equity in the relationship between researchers and indigenous peoples

Approved march 2007

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SUMMARY – This Opinion addresses the sensitive issue of the recognised rights of local or indigenous peoples during research conducted with their support, in developed or developing countries[1].

 Many fields of research in the human, biological or Earth sciences involve these populations in one way or another. Sometimes they themselves are test subjects (e.g. DNA sampling of the Guaymi Indians of Panama by a team of biologists and doctors). Sometimes it is their rituals or culture that are studied (anthropological or linguistic studies, for example). They also contribute to numerous research projects by providing various goods (such as medicinal plants) and knowledge (in ethnobotany, zoology, observation of the consequences of climate change, etc.).

 Whatever the exact methods and procedures used, this research raises the crucial issue of fairness in the relationship established between the researchers and these indigenous peoples.

 Strictly speaking, this is not a new issue. It points to that of archaeological digs (we are aware that the problem of the repatriation of works of art and other collections “borrowed” from indigenous peoples persists to this day) or the trade in numerous plants (think of the old political tensions created by the trading of rubber trees brought back from Brazil). Nevertheless, it today appears in a significantly renewed light both in terms of its formulation (I) and the challenges involved (II). It calls for the drafting of codes of conduct for researchers (III).

 

[1] We will not enter here into the issue of how to define “indigenous peoples” because no single definition is internationally accepted (the terms “aboriginal”, “indigenous”, “native” or “tribal” are used interchangeably to designate indigenous populations yet refer to distinct realities. On this point, see the report of the Special Rapporteur for the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights 2002). However, two points are worth noting. On the one hand, it is necessary to point out that indigenous peoples are not only from developing countries but also from North America, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia or France (French Guiana, Polynesia, New Caledonia, etc.). On the other hand, everyone at least agrees that indigenous peoples have a “historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories and consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories… [and] exhibit a determination to preserve, develop, and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions, and legal systems.” (UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations).

 

Opinion n°2007-16 - Scientific deliberations on research findings

Approved march 2007

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SUMMARY – One of the tasks of researchers and the institutions that fund them is to ensure the dissemination of research findings. However, the context of such dissemination is today undergoing rapid change due to the increasing importance of digital data and the Internet in the running of our societies. This Opinion, which focuses on scientific publishing, aims to highlight the ethical issues raised by this change and to make a number of recommendations concerning them.

 1. Background. The rules for the organised dissemination of knowledge, established since the 17th century, have not fundamentally changed, but the professionalisation of scientific research has profoundly altered its context through the development of journals, the obligation to publish and the pressures it generates.

 2. Kinds of dissemination channels. This Opinion focuses on publications, and does not address patents or databases, both of which may be discussed at a later date. In addition to the traditional channels of institutional journals and archives, there are also the rapidly expanding channels of open access journals and open archives. Each of them must ensure the excellence of the work disseminated, the speed of dissemination and its amplitude: these requirements are not always met.

 3. Some thoughts on methods and procedures. Open access journals and open archives are steps towards an optimised model, still to be created, where the imperatives of free circulation, ethical concerns, quality criteria and economic equilibrium would be better combined, perhaps through self-regulation between authors and readers. The fact that the necessary scientific filters are in place does not guarantee the absence of abuses.

 The procedures for signing publications (number, order) and the way they are referenced by the organisations employing the researchers are unsatisfactory.

 Electronic means of wide dissemination facilitate the rapid availability of a huge pool of data from a variety of sources through search engines. This new approach, which is both attractive and effective, may be accompanied by drawbacks with regard to metadata (referencing, indexing by content). This crucial aspect implies cooperation between new generation archivists and researchers.

The construction of a European Research Area offers an opportunity for significant developments, particularly in the short term to promote accessibility to the results of research funded under the 7th Framework Programme.

4. Ethical issues. Facilitating access by as many people as possible to knowledge acquired through public funding by considering it as a universal good, whether within the most developed countries or beyond their borders, is a major ethical choice whose consequences for humankind and societies cannot be ignored.

A common policy applicable to research institutions and publishers appears indispensable. Such a policy, possibly of European inspiration, would be based on the sharing of responsibilities and the definition of institutional support.

 New forms of scientific publishing are now flourishing alongside some dominant journals. The existence of a relatively small number of search engines can lead to a monopoly on the dissemination of knowledge over the Internet. The use of a single language can then lead to a limited expression of research findings.

 Researchers must question the appropriateness and relevance of their decision to communicate their findings. Reviewers and review panels must be careful not to succumb to the convenience of solely exploiting parameters related to the type of journal or citation frequencies.

Opinion n°2006-15 - The ethical issue of nanoscience and nanotechnology

Approved october 12, 2006

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SUMMARY – The surge in the exploration and manipulation of matter on an atomic scale is seen by many as a revolution with exciting, but sometimes disturbing, prospects. COMETS, the CNRS Ethics Committee, wished to take up this subject and herein formulates an Opinion, proposing avenues of reflection and recommendations to both the institution and its researchers.

 This Opinion, which essentially aims to raise awareness in the research community of the ethical dimensions of nanoscience and nanotechnology research, does not seek to describe this field of science and technology, as the joint report of the French Academies of Sciences and Technologies (2004) has done[1].

 Nor does it have the scope of the work published that same year by the UK’s Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering[2], which deals in depth with the ethical and social aspects of this field.

 This Opinion also leaves aside many aspects analysed elsewhere: impacts on health, currently being examined by France’s National Consultative Ethics Committee for Health and Life Sciences (CCNE), impacts on geopolitical equilibrium, addressed by the UNESCO Report[3], as well as problems of a legal nature, which are a matter for the law.

 Taking into account the dynamism of this research sector and its prospects for application, this Opinion would like to foster awareness among the researchers concerned, both in their activities within the CNRS and towards the public, so that the freedom of research — that is so fundamental to creativity — is accompanied by a strong sense of individual and social responsibility.

 The surge in the exploration and manipulation of matter on an atomic scale is seen by many as a revolution with exciting, but sometimes disturbing, prospects. The CNRS Ethics Committee, COMETS, wished to take up this subject and herein formulates an Opinion, proposing avenues of reflection and recommendations to both the institution and its researchers.

1. Why is a formal internal request considered necessary? This formal internal request is justified by the promises and concerns raised by nanotechnology and nanoscience, and by the fact that the CNRS cannot ignore the deliberations carried out upstream on their ethical implications.

2. The nature of nanoscience and nanotechnology. An analysis of nanoscience and nanotechnology reveals first of all the tension between the two seemingly contradictory aspirations that underlie them: the desire for control and the desire for emergence. Secondly, it reveals the aura of fiction surrounding them, which must be taken seriously; and thirdly, the need for ethical and social vigilance in response to the “nano” approach, which is a truly generic technology that will affect all production sectors.

3. The specific features of nanoscience and nanotechnology. Admittedly, “nano” is a convenient slogan, but three new features should be considered: the first one is the scientific context, with the nano-bio-info-cognitive (NBIC) convergence. The second one is the political context of globalisation and competition; and the third is the social context, with its demanding public.

4. An overview of the somewhat contrasting ethical and social support initiatives developed in other European countries: Constructive Technology Assessment (Netherlands); Public Engagement in Science (Great Britain); Pour une symbiose entre science et culture [For a symbiotic relationship between science and culture] (Germany and France).

5. For an ethical code of conduct applied to nanoscience, based on good practices, risk prevention and precaution in the face of uncertainty, and deliberations on values and purposes.

 

[1] Académie des sciences et Académie des technologies, Nanosciences, nanotechnologies, Paris, Editions Tec&Doc, Rapport Science & Technologie N°18 – April 2004.

[2] Nanoscience, Nanotechnology: Opportunities and Uncertainties, 2004, http://www.nanotec.org.uk/.

[3] Nanotechnology and Ethics, 2006, www.unesco.org/shs/est

Opinion n°2006-14 - Scientific fraud within the CNRS

Approved april 3, 2006

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SUMMARY – The ethics committee recommends setting up an ad hoc committee to study each specific case.

Based on the principle that each case of presumed fraud is unique, the ethics committee recommends that this ad hoc committee:

Study the situation in order to ascertain the reality of the charges

 Ensure that the rights of the defence are respected (distinguishing between presumptions and evidence): it is a principle in law to base convictions on objective evidence and to give the person suspected of fraud the benefit of a presumption of innocence, not guilt.

 (The presumption of innocence is a fundamental rule according to which a person prosecuted for an offence is presumed, a priori, not to have committed it until his or her guilt has actually been established. The defendant must also be given the benefit of the doubt and be acquitted if not proven guilty).

Beyond fraud, examine possible breaches of the implicit or explicit good practices expected of a researcher

The Ethics Committee suggests that one of its members could be an observer on the ad hoc committee.

The ad hoc committee shall deliver its decision to the Management Board, which may — on the basis of this report — refer the matter to the institution’s disciplinary bodies in accordance with French civil service regulations.

Opinion n°2006-13 - Gender equility

Approved november 7, 2006

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SUMMARY – At its plenary meeting on 7 November, COMETS expressed its regret that the recent appointments to the Board of Directors had not resulted in a balanced representation of men and women on the Board.

 Elisabeth Dubois-Violette, former chair of the Scientific Board (who during her term of office actively participated in the work of COMETS), has since been lobbying the Minister of Research and members of parliament to ensure that such a situation does not happen again. Through some of its members, COMETS has followed this action and made a small contribution to its progress towards concrete measures.

Opinion n°2005-12 - Ethics and scientific expert appraisal

Approved september 2005

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SUMMARY – Standing at the crossroads of relations between science and society, expert appraisal is central to many debates. In 2003, CNRS Chairman Gérard Mégie asked the COMETS Ethics Committee to contribute to this subject. This text is only the first stage of deliberations that COMETS intends to pursue and which it wishes to enrich and update, in particular through case analyses and, more broadly, by benefiting from both national and international experience.

 After starting a project on Ethics and Assessment (see: http://www2.cnrs.fr/band/254.htm ), COMETS therefore instigated deliberations on Ethics and Expert Appraisal. It quickly became clear that these two subjects overlapped in many areas and that the two texts complemented each other.

Opinion n°2005-10 - The future of young people and research integrity

Approved may 2005

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COMMUNICATION – Many questions concerning the organisation and conduct of research, which have been debated by public opinion as well as by researchers for several months, require ethical deliberations. Rather than undertake the task of issuing an Opinion on each and every one, the CNRS Ethics Committee, COMETS, has chosen to express itself concisely herein on only one, which falls within its remit. It appears to COMETS that this subject deserves special attention in the critical period currently being experienced by the research community, a period that affects decisively and in particular the future of young people in French research.

Each generation has a moral duty to pass on to those who will follow the best of what it has received and developed. It must ensure that the resources on which it has been built are equitably shared, while leaving avenues open for those who will continue its work. Knowledge is a common good, the end result of collective and critical construction over time. The concern for equity requires that the youngest people, trained and motivated to embrace this future, find support in their first steps in order to create the most favourable conditions so that they, in turn, can make their own contribution.

It is not acceptable that young people, having provided proof of their ability to carry out research — as attested by the fact that they have obtained a very demanding doctoral degree — should find it very difficult to enter the workforce, either as a researcher in an academic setting or, taking advantage of their initial training through research, by obtaining a job in the public or private sector. Both the scientific community as a whole and its partners, the public authorities which assign it tasks, are jointly responsible for this integration in the workplace and must take responsibility for it. By offering alternatives, it is also up to them to challenge the dominant organisation of the international scientific job market. Indeed, losing this talent to employers not having paid anything towards the cost of training is detrimental to France, to Europe — which aspires to enter a knowledge-based society — and more especially to emerging countries.

It is morally unfair for young people, who can make a major contribution to discoveries, laboratory activities and data processing, to be used — as is often the case at this level of competence — as mere labour, without actually passing the baton on to them to build a sustainable future. If young people are not given the means to take initiatives and given the responsibility that they deserve in the exceptional period of creativity that often accompanies the years following their doctorate, whether in public or private research, skills are being wasted and the common good undermined.

In the difficult situation often faced by newly-qualified doctoral graduates, it is important that companies explicitly recognise this level of qualification; likewise, it is important that the actual arrangements for setting up public competitive examination procedures do not penalise certain candidates, such as young expatriates, by imposing on them multiple and/or unnecessary procedures or journeys that are more costly when decided late in the day. The impact of such dysfunctions on both public opinion and the family and friends of young people interested in research, is far from negligible. It strengthens the idea that the broadening of knowledge is not a goal worth pursuing as a career.

All these difficulties erode the quality and ambitions of education by limiting it to acquisitions that are considered to be of immediate use which thus encourages a consumerist approach.

The passion to seek knowledge, make discoveries and contribute to the common good, which determines the proper exercise of the profession of researcher, cannot overshadow the ethical issues raised by the acquisition and use of knowledge. On this point, younger people — who are particularly sensitive to public debates and the questions that society addresses to researchers — are often disadvantaged. It is the responsibility of their elders to introduce them to these expectations through genuine, attentive listening and appropriate training. In this way, the younger generation will truly be able to become players in the new founding pact between research and society for which they are responsible.

Opinion n°2004-09 - Ethics and assessment

Approved december 2004

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SUMMARY – Assessments are rife among the research community in general, and the public research community in particular. The review of an article by a journal, the recruitment of a researcher, the decision on whether or not to develop an instrument or sophisticated apparatus, the examination of the activities of a laboratory or responses to a call for tenders all require critical examination, an assessment of originality, the evaluation of costs and risks, forward-looking analysis, and therefore comparisons and choices, all of which are central to assessment processes.

The following is the beginning of ethical deliberations on the function of and procedures for assessment within the CNRS. Our aim was above all to consider what should be done in terms of assessment and to explore desirable values, principles and rules. These ethical deliberations aim to initiate a process that will lead in the long term to greater fairness and efficiency in scientific choices and policies.

Our thinking focused first on the principles and standards that assessors must adhere to, both in their individual behaviour and as a group. Ethics cannot, however, be limited to putting forward an ideal model of behaviour to which those involved in the assessment process should conform. The positive effects of each individual’s moral attitude must not be neutralised or diverted by explicit or implicit organisational rules, i.e. by a system which, for structural reasons, would not be able to preserve an assessment’s objectivity and fairness. However concerned with objectivity and equity somebody may be, personal morality is not enough when organisational rules leave room for bias or hinder the implementation of fairer procedures. This is why we have also considered the way assessments are organised within the CNRS. A third aspect of our deliberations relates to the legitimate demands of those being assessed: they demand a fair, impartial and frank evaluation, in addition to one that is informed and tailored to individual cases.

Opinion n°2004-08 - Ethics and assessment

Approved december 2004

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SUMMARY – Assessments are rife among the research community in general, and the public research community in particular. The review of an article by a journal, the recruitment of a researcher, the decision on whether or not to develop an instrument or sophisticated apparatus, the examination of the activities of a laboratory or responses to a call for tenders all require critical examination, an assessment of originality, the evaluation of costs and risks, forward-looking analysis, and therefore comparisons and choices, all of which are central to assessment processes.

The following is the beginning of ethical deliberations on the function of and procedures for assessment within the CNRS. Our aim was above all to consider what should be done in terms of assessment and to explore desirable values, principles and rules. These ethical deliberations aim to initiate a process that will lead in the long term to greater fairness and efficiency in scientific choices and policies.

Our thinking focused first on the principles and standards that assessors must adhere to, both in their individual behaviour and as a group. Ethics cannot, however, be limited to putting forward an ideal model of behaviour to which those involved in the assessment process should conform. The positive effects of each individual’s moral attitude must not be neutralised or diverted by explicit or implicit organisational rules, i.e. by a system which, for structural reasons, would not be able to preserve an assessment’s objectivity and fairness. However concerned with objectivity and equity somebody may be, personal morality is not enough when organisational rules leave room for bias or hinder the implementation of fairer procedures. This is why we have also considered the way assessments are organised within the CNRS. A third aspect of our deliberations relates to the legitimate demands of those being assessed: they demand a fair, impartial and frank evaluation, in addition to one that is informed and tailored to individual cases.

Opinion n°2001-07 - Ethical aspects of research and creation

Approved may 2001

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SUMMARY – This new report by the Ethics Committee for Science (COMETS) — “Ethical aspects of research and creation” (May 2001) — has not yet been published in print.

 Ethical aspects of research and creation

 COMETS, the CNRS Ethics Committee for Science, was set up in 1994 and renewed in 1998 for another three years. During these three years, COMETS undertook general deliberations on subjects which appeared to committee members to merit clarification. The texts presented below are the initial results of these deliberations, and address the whole scientific community, from novice researchers to those responsible for science policy.

Two main themes were discussed :

The first is the acknowledgement of the relationship between researchers and their work. A researcher’s legitimate desire to have his or her contribution to a discovery acknowledged can take several forms, ranging from a request for peer recognition of what we have called “scientific authorship” to a request for legal recognition of “intellectual property”. Issues of this kind can be found in all disciplines. They are often intense, and conflicts over such matters can profoundly disrupt the activity of a laboratory or the relationship between colleagues. Conflicts like this often develop within a relatively unclear ethical framework: behaviour that appears “unethical” to us is often not perceived as such by those who adopt it, thus increasing the frustration of those who consider themselves wronged. Our considerations have led us to propose a general text on scientific authorship accompanied by more specific developments on signatures and the legal aspects of intellectual property.

The second theme we addressed is the relationship between science and society. The social responsibility of researchers and the role of politicians in research activities are undeniable, but often regarded in vague terms. As an ethics committee, we felt it would be worthwhile to attempt to take stock of this subject and examine in particular the responsibilities of scientific personalities solicited by the media but also those of the administrative and political leaders in charge of research.

A text is currently being drawn up on the ethical issues raised by assessment procedures, and we have initiated deliberations on expert appraisal, which is a function increasingly exercised by researchers. We have also been asked to address other issues, including three that the next COMETS members could no doubt usefully consider.

Opinion n°1997-06 - A legal perspective on research activities

Approved june 1997

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SUMMARY – The report by Michel Vivant, Activité de recherche : un éclairage juridique [A legal perspective on research activities] was drafted in April 1995 to serve as a basis for reflection by the Committee of Ethics for Science (COMETS). As the author states in the report’s preamble, it cannot claim to build ex nihilo when there are already answers or partial answers (to the questions posed by those involved in research). This report was revised in June 1997 for inclusion in the current “Cahiers” [workbooks].

It has no ethical ambitions. It seeks only to review the state of the law in relation to the thorny question of the availability of research findings, and present it in such a way that it can be easily understood by those without a legal background. Many will undoubtedly find the answers to their questions in this report.

Yet there remains the debate on ethical aspects.

Opinion n°1997-05 - Scientific activities and internet

Approved june 1997

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SUMMARY – The Internet is primarily a system of interconnecting nodes serving as global relays that can transmit information. These nodes are in fact computers that transmit and receive information. It was originally developed by the US DoD (DARPA) in the early 1970s with the support of researchers to communicate securely even when part of the network is destroyed: the system’s task is to find the node-to-node connections within the network that make it possible to move from A to B.

Opinion n°1997-04 - Research integrity and scientific insitutions

Approved june 1997

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SUMMARY – Scientific integrity issues are usually examined independently of the institutions in which they arise or which solve them. While this approach is often justified, it is nonetheless useful to question the links that may exist between research integrity on the one hand and the nature and functioning of scientific institutions on the other. Indeed, institutions can help to avoid or control misconduct or, conversely, generate adverse ethical effects.

Inversely, the ethical or unethical behaviour of individual researchers or groups of researchers can have a favourable or unfavourable impact on the life of institutions.

Opinion n°1996-03 - Scientific research and private fund-raising

Approved june 1996

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SUMMARY – Following recent events, and without calling into question the legitimate principle of charities helping to fund research, COMETS has seen fit to put forward recommendations on the relationship between researchers, charities and the media in operations aimed at raising private funds.

Opinion n°1996-02 - COMETS report on knowledge dissemination

Approved march 1996

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SUMMARY 

  1. Knowledge is gradually built up over time, refined and nuanced, diversified and specialised, relativised and generalised at the same time. Mistakes and crises are part of its fabric. Therefore, it intrinsically – albeit often implicitly – encapsulates considerations on the criteria governing its objectivity, on the notions of true and false, certain and uncertain, experience, reality, intuition and demonstration, etc. It also encompasses a gamble on its immediate or future usefulness, thus broadening deliberations to include both its technological implementation and questions pertaining to its relationship with society. These questions cut across education, economics, politics, ecology, sociology, law, ethics, etc. to varying degrees.

 

  1. Knowledge is thus built up against a backdrop of scientific issues and methodical or philosophical questions that are more or less easy to identify if not to address, as well as more or less clearly stated socio-political questions that are difficult to resolve without taking priority-defining choices into account. The dissemination of knowledge therefore encompasses at least three dimensions: the dissemination of scientific content, the dissemination of the methodical and epistemological contexts in which this content was developed, and the dissemination of the socio-political issues related to this development. These three dimensions are obviously concomitant and interdependent, but they are also interdependent with a historical perspective that is analogous in all three.

 

  1. It is clear that the dissemination of knowledge does not only aim to transmit information about the latest findings, i.e. to provide information in a sporadic and more or less external, schematic and simplified way on the immediately understandable or “interesting” parts (stemming from their novelty, their paradoxical nature, their potential applications, or their questioning of accepted cultural paradigms and attitudes, for example). It also aims to promote a genuine scientific acculturation of society (taking into account different audiences and different levels of technicality). The goal is firstly to reduce the distance between the “learned” and the layman, in order to avoid too great a divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” of knowledge; and secondly, to help develop a critical mindset and ability to assess matters, thanks to which individuals are able to form their own points of reference for living, thinking, acting and adapting to an environment that is increasingly unstable and incomprehensible. Finally, it aims to ensure that citizens form an informed and responsible opinion on societal issues — whether related to educational, political, economic, ecological, or ethical choices, for example — posed by scientific development and experimentation.

 

  1. Disseminating knowledge is therefore less a matter of the duty to inform than of the task of forging a place for scientific achievements in education and culture. This task falls primarily to scientists themselves, the goal being to improve the very conditions under which scientific information is received. In a “communication society”, disseminating knowledge cannot be limited to transmitting information; it is rather a question of establishing active cooperation between the different players, whether they are producing, transmitting or receiving this knowledge.

 

  1. On what foundation should this cooperation be built today?

Opinion n°1995-01 - COMETS report on scientific communication

Approved january 1995

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SUMMARY – Deliberations of the Ethics Committee for Science (COMETS) in response to the formal request by Mr François Fillon.

The debate is certainly not new, and we must rule out any form of dramatisation that would set all the evils of the present against an idealised past and thus extrapolate a future painted in a pessimistic light. Yet it is obvious that the transformations that have taken place, are currently taking place or have been announced in communication techniques are tending to disrupt the data related to this issue.

  1. Scientific communication is booming
  2. The new context of scientific work
  3. Science as an economic and political issue in a democratic society
  4. Researchers and scientific communication
  5. Researchers’ responsibilities
  6. Recommendations