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Science is now playing a new role due to the climate crisis. Here’s how research ethics should change.
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Science is now playing a new role due to the climate crisis. Here’s how research ethics should change.


Young people around the globe have taken to the streets to demand that decision-makers at COP26 be listened to listen to the science. If science is to live up these expectations, it will require a fundamental rethinking in light of climate and ecological crises of research ethics.

Researchers are faced with new ethical dilemmas as a result of the ongoing planetary crises. The three main principles of research ethics – do no harm, integrity, and responsibility – remain relevant to avoid wrongdoing. These were not intended to be used in an emergency. in response to scandals in biomedical researchThese new challenges were not anticipated by the company.

We propose a shift from a negative ethics that focuses on avoiding harm to one that promotes positive research ethics. These new ethics are necessary to guide the global scientific communities in relation to civil society, politics during climate and environmental crises.

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Do no harm

According to the “do no harm” imperative, researchers have a responsibility to avoid hurting humans or animals directly involved in their research. But what does “do no harm” mean in the midst of climate and ecological crises?

Scientists are questioning the carbon footprint of academic activities. flying to conferencesTo developing artificial intelligence. Research has also brought back the unpredictable and long-term effects of research. One example is the debate over the high risksOf geoengineering.

Infographic showing main geoengineering methods

Despite the superficial appeal of a geoengineering ‘quick fix’, ethical research must consider its risks.
© Climate Central. Used with permission

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The “do no harm” principle should thus be broadened in two ways:

  1. It should include humans, animals, and ecosystems that are not traditionally considered part of the research process but could be adversely affected by it.

  2. It should be able to account for the long-term, indirect, or unintended effects of research projects or new technology.

But, to prevent the climate crisis, society must be transformed completely within ten years, is it enough for research to “do no harm”? Inspiration by post-colonial approaches to research ethicsWe recommend moving beyond this negative principle to a positive, regenerative science.

This science would actively support the project of regenerating society and ecosystems. It would be motivated from an analysis and acknowledgment of the suffering currently taking place as well historical responsibilities and power relationships.

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Integrity is key

Integrity is a principle that requires researchers to follow strict protocols, disclose conflict of interest, not manipulate data and avoid plagiarism. But science cannot be rigorous if they ignore environmental variables.

Some disciplines ignore the IPCC reports’ predictions, as well as indicators of mass extinction or ecosystem collapse. They also struggle with reflecting the complex and delicate interconnectionPractical recommendations that address the relationship between humanity and nature.

Mainstream economics, for example, focuses heavily on GDP growth and views our planet’s habitat primarily as a resource to be used or exploited. Geoengineering is based on the understanding that our life-support systems are a collection of disconnected pieces that can all be engineered.

Ultimately, “integrity means wholeness”. It is acknowledging the fragility and interconnectedness of our lives, which we must preserve.

In their analyses, researchers should also consider ecological dimensions. Researchers should also examine the concept of the humanity-nature relationship implicitly underpinning their work.

Take responsibility

According to the “responsibility” principle, research should be relevant to society and communicated to the public. But in a climate crisis, findings can be so dramatic, their implications for society so huge and controversial, that the word “responsibility” takes a new, heavier meaning.

This is why some scientists don’t dare speak out because they fear that they might be biased. They have a tendency to remain silent. fail to influence the public debate.

Others are tempted by the temptation to adjust their research in order to satisfy political demands. An example is the inclusion of unrealistic amounts of “negative carbon emissions” in climate models to satisfy policymakers. This was criticisedUnintentionally, providing a scientific cover up for climate inaction

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Others have also suggested that focusing mainly on technological innovationCan solve the ecological crises. It’s a discourse that delays action by decreasing the sense of emergencyThese crises can be tackled.

Man in suit gestures as he speaks at COP26 climate summit
Scott Morrison, the Australian Prime Minister, is one of those who advocate technological solutions while delaying climate action elsewhere.
Ian Forsyth/AP/AAP

The “responsibility” principle should therefore be enriched in three ways:

  1. Scientists should be able to take their findings seriously and speak up for the societal implications of their findings, even if it is uncomfortable.

  2. Researchers should defend the scientific process itselfFrom the influenceOf political and economic interests

  3. Scientists should be humble about what science can accomplish. This means accepting the limits of our knowledge in a complex world. It also means acknowledging the slow pace. unpredictable consequences of technological development.

From words to actions

These research ethics should be further developed. They can then be integrated into global guidelines for individual researchers as well as for governments, universities, and funding agencies.

Any solution to the climate or ecological crisis will need academic research. It is more than just the adoption of sustainability plans that universities must accept responsibility for facing existential threats.

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