Brussels, 16 February 2006
Video message at the World Congress of Freedom of Scientific Research
Rome, 16 February 2006
Let me first apologise for not being in Rome with you today. I had hoped to be able to travel to Italy but other commitments intervened. Fortunately the use of information technologies allows me to bridge the physical distance between us.
When I received your invitation, what struck me was the title of the conference itself. Very often, organisers of such events choose a quite neutral or technical title. This was definitively not your choice! By using strong words such as “the Freedom of Scientific research”, you set the tone for your debates.
But what do we mean by “Freedom of Science”? To my mind, this expression clearly refers to the relationship between science and any form of power. To my knowledge, we inherited from the 16th to 18th century period the vision of science as an endeavour which needs to be protected from other interferences such as ideology, religion or political power. This is translated in the fundamental principle of academic freedom which is enshrined in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. It grounds the legitimacy of the self-governance of the scientific community.
In this context, what is expected from policy is to protect or guarantee the independence and integrity of scientific endeavour.
But there are a certain number of other values or principles which should be respected in the scientific area. I am referring to ethics.
It has now become generally accepted that science is rapidly advancing and that it will change our society profoundly. New products and services resulting from research and technological development may touch the integrity, dignity and privacy of persons concerned. These values have to be respected. Ethical issues are therefore integral components of the responsible use of research. And there is no way that “Freedom of Science” means doing whatever one wants without respecting guidelines or principles.
The integration of ethics into research practices is generally accepted and implemented across the world. But it has a particular importance in the EU, where we have a common set of basic shared values: in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.
But the European Union is also characterised by ethical pluralism and the principle of subsidiarity. Such pluralism reflects the richness of European traditions and entails an additional need for mutual respect and tolerance. Respect for different approaches is implicit in the ethical dimension of building a Europe-wide democratic society.
The regulatory framework at national and European level does require research activities not to go against fundamental ethical principles. But further efforts are needed to promote pan-European dialogue, better awareness-raising, networking and understanding between researchers, regulators and experts on ethics. In this respect, your congress has perfect relevance and real added value.
So to the immediate question: is freedom of science jeopardized? Is freedom of science limited by ethical concerns? How do we find the right balance? Difficult questions, aren’t they?
They are all the more difficult because ethical frameworks are drawn from many sources ranging from science, philosophy and religion, to popular protest and public debate. Whereas certain ethical principles are more or less universally accepted, others are not so clear-cut. Science, as it pushes forward the limits of our knowledge into the unknown is an area of complex ethical challenges.
Although the scientific domain is already governed by strong ethical codes, its ever-changing nature means that these need regular, and often rapid, review and revision.
Let’s come back to one of my questions: is freedom of science jeopardized? I am not going to give you a straight and short answer. To try to do so would be presumptuous since very talented people have been working on this question. However I am firmly convinced that our duty and responsibility is to help society draw the maximum benefit from scientific inquiry. Together we have to develop a broad and comprehensive ethical framework that promotes responsible research. This framework should uphold universal values but also recognise that Europe is a rich cultural tapestry made of diverging ethical, religious, historical and philosophical backgrounds. Each of which has the right to be respected and defended.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share some thoughts with you. I wish you a very successful congress and I am looking forward to reading the conclusions of your discussions.
And of course, best wishes to all of you gathered in the Eternal City.