A European observatory for ethical issues in science is mooted

December 3, 2002

Brussels, 02 Dec 2002

A European observatory for ethical issues in science is necessary because discussions and debates currently conducted at a national level are not having any impact at European level, Barbara Rhode, Head of Unit for ethics and science in the European Commission, told CORDIS News on 28 November.

Coordinators of pan-European networks on ethics in science gathered in Brussels on 28 and 29 November at a Commission event to discuss the setting up of such an observatory, as foreseen in the Commission's Science and Society Action Plan. Concrete actions are expected to begin in 2003.

But why is closer cooperation between ethics networks at European level desirable? 'Tolerance,' says Ms Rhode. 'Tolerance is one of our most important values in Europe and we get this by understanding,' she told CORDIS News. 'We are living in Europe and should open our minds.'

Action 29 in the action plan states that 'An information and documentation observatory will be developed to help track and analyse the development of ethical issues in science at national and international level.'

Several participants at the workshop suggested an observatory of expertise is more important than a pool of data, and suggested that in order to collect data, they should employ a team of data collectors specifically for this purpose. Professor R Spier from 'Biotech' suggested that the Commission employ a team to visit EU Member States and candidate countries to canvass what the Commission is doing. 'There are no [ethics] experts who can do this,' he said.

Ms Rhode accepted that a dedicated team would be necessary to collect the relevant information, but rejected the idea that expertise is more important than information.

'An information system is necessary to construct a house. We cannot have expertise if we don't have information and access to information,' she said. 'We have to construct something which is a base line. We don't need one or the other [expertise/information], we need both.'

This point was echoed by Francesco Perez-Trejo from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation. 'There is no question about whether an observatory should exist. It is a need rather than an option,' he said. 'It will help organisations to move forward. A function could be network building and strengthening, and based on that, a number of information needs will arise,' he added.

The observatory would facilitate access to information, gather intelligence and information and identify the ethical criteria necessary for the evaluation of proposals for projects under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).

The Commission has already made some progress in this area with the funding of EURETHNET, the European information network in ethics in medicine and biotechnology. The network covers Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the UK, and is designed as a virtual unit of different databases constructed using common structures, and a thesaurus allowing cross searching and comparative information research.

EURETHNET makes information on ethics in biomedicine, biotechnology and related legal issues available to academics, researchers, decision-makers and consumers via an Internet portal. The network aims to harmonise documentary standards and documentation procedures while respecting ethical pluralism where content is concerned.

Further information on the Science and Society Action Plan:
http://www.cordis.lu/rtd2002/science-soc iety/home.html
http://europa.eu.int/comm/research/scien ce-society

Further information on EURETHNET: hfanger@gwdg.de

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities, 2001

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