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Ethics and ICST

12/01/2010

The CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research) ethics committee and an Inria commission recommend the creation of an ethics committee covering research into computational science and technology

The CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research) and Inria are making two reports public, namely "In favour of ethics covering research into information and communication science and technology" written by the CNRS ethics committee (known as COMETS), and "Report on forming an ethics committee covering research into computational science and technology" drafted by a commission set up by Inria. At the heart of our societies' development, computational science and technology and the research they generate really do raise fundamental ethical issues that both organisations wished to investigate.  Emphasising the many fields affected by such issues, and describing the current situation in other disciplines and abroad, both reports particularly agree on the need to create an ethics committee covering research into computational science and technology without delay.

Research into computational science and technology is facing many ethical issues

Computational science and technology occupies an ever more significant place in our society and in our fellow citizens' private and working lives alike. They include ICST (information and communication science and technology), computer science, robotics, automation… and mathematics. Research conducted in these disciplines raises fundamental ethical issues in many fields, as both reports point out.

The multi-disciplinary working party set up by COMETS has accordingly drawn up a chart of the main aspects concerned – protection of privacy; impact on people; robot rights; risks (relating to health, technology or the environment); education and work; trade; community life; information and knowledge.

This chart joins the different examples introduced by the Inria-coordinated report, such as the development of profiling tools, bioinformatics and the detection of genetic illnesses, computational medicine, the study of computer viruses, internet governance, international interchange of human data, law in the digital society, etc.

Such ethical issues are not currently sufficiently taken into account within research that is conducted, for lack of any prior awareness in researchers or any tools or related expertise being made available. This observation applies not only to how research is carried out, but also to consideration of the consequences of research findings.

Forming an ethics committee covering research in computational sciences and technologies is a necessity

Ethical issues really began to emerge at Inria in the early 2000s, so when its 2008-2012 strategic plan was drawn up, the Institute set itself the objective of analysing needs and finding solutions to support researchers faced with such issues. This decision led to the publication of the report that was finalised in May 2009. Today, the Institute recognises that all of its research teams may potentially be faced with ethical issues.

Finalised by the COMETS committee at its meeting on 3 November 2009, the COMETS report is the culmination of a year of discussion, augmented with input from scientists. It in particular makes the observation that, in this rapidly developing sector, major problems are emerging after the event, i.e. only after powerful technology has already been rolled out on a massive scale. However, some cross-disciplinary deliberation beforehand should enable the field of research to be broadened to include anticipation of remedies, or the development of technology that is able to more easily adapt to the actual use made of it. This approach would make it possible to prevent or by-pass expected or actual issues, going so far as identifying the emergence of new business and social models caused by the arrival of such technologies.

The CNRS ethics committee and the experts that coordinated the Inria report conducted their work almost concomitantly. Having discussed their analyses and quickly realised the extent to which they converged, they took their methods to their logical conclusion by together confirming that the priority is to implement the main recommendation they reached, i.e. to form a multi-disciplinary ethics committee covering research into computational science and technology.
Its remit is, in particular, to better identify the ethical impact of the research carried out in the field, to raise researchers' awareness of these issues and to ensure that the research conducted meets the ethical criteria highlighted. More broadly, its role will involve providing society as a whole with objective information about the progress of research and its potential consequences, encouraging research in France that makes it possible to incorporate such ethical issues, including support for joint ICST-SHS research projects, and providing training in the ethics of computational science and technology.

Given the need to anticipate the responses to be brought to issues raised by research's future progress in these fields and their importance to society, both reports recommended the formation of an ethics committee covering research into computational science and technology in 2010. The way both reports reached the same conclusion is an indication that this committee could include all research organisations working in this area.

The reports are available on request from the press departments of each organisation.

About

Inria

A public science and technology institution under the supervision of the ministries for Research and for Industry. Executives: Michel COSNARD, Chairman and CEO of Inria - Jean-Pierre VERJUS, Deputy Managing Director. Annual budget (2009): €200m, of which 21% is from its own resources. Regional research centres:  Paris - Rocquencourt, Sophia Antipolis – Méditerranée, Grenoble - Rhône-Alpes, Nancy - Grand Est, Rennes - Bretagne Atlantique, Bordeaux – Sud Ouest, Lille - Nord Europe, Saclay - Île-de-France. 2,800 researchers, including more than 1,000 PhD students, working within more than 160 project-teams, the majority of which are shared with other bodies, Grandes Ecoles and universities.  790 ongoing research agreements. 79 associate teams around the world. 94 businesses started since 1984.

CNRS

The CNRS National Centre for Scientific Research is a public research institution (public science and technology institution (EPST) placed under the supervision of the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research). It produces knowledge and makes that knowledge available to society. With more than 32,000 people (including 26,000 permanent employees with 11,600 researchers and 14,400 engineers, technical and admin staff) and a 2009 budget of €3.367 billion of which €607m from its own resources, and sites across France, the CNRS works in all fields of knowledge, supported by 1,200 research and service units. Many eminent researchers have worked, at some point or other in their career, in CNRS laboratories. With 16 Nobel prize winners and 9 Fields medals, the CNRS has a long tradition of excellence.

Keywords: COMETS ICST Press release Computational science and technology

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