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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 40 - February 2004   
 Taking the pollution out of health care
 Ice seasons
 The class of 2003
 Researchers on the high seas
 The Prigogine legacy
 The sounds of Ethiopia

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Title  Protecting the 'whistle-blowers'

What can a scientist or engineer, or even a technician, do when faced with a conflict between professional obligations and civic conscience? How can he or she sound the alarm when convinced that certain developments or research pose a potential threat to health, the environment or society? How can a person avoid being sidelined, excluded or even prosecuted for deciding to speak out? In the field of science and technology, the idea of including a conscience clause in international labour law – to protect the 'whistleblowers' – is gaining ground.

Protecting the 'whistle-blowers'
Traditionally, science has had an built-in safeguard in the form of the necessary approval by the scientific community itself of the scientific and technical value of progress in knowledge. Exercised by a mechanism known as peer review, which controls the publication of research results in recognised scientific journals, this self-regulation certainly covers the quality of knowledge and respect for professional practices among researchers(1). But can it take into account ethical issues related to the impact of research on society? 

Under pressure from economic competition, scientific and technological priorities are increasingly being determined by industrial – and military – considerations. Public-funded research is going down the same road, as well as being subjected to budgetary limits. Acknowledging that science is involved in an increasingly complex process of knowledge production and innovation – one largely outside its control and requiring increased vigilance to ensure respect for even the most fundamental principles of precaution – 13 renowned publications (such as The Lancet or the Journal of the American Medical Association) published a common manifesto in September 2001 setting out their concerns.

The Geneva days
Ethical questions linked to progress in science and technology are today at the heart of many of society's most lively debates. There is a need, however, for these discussions to draw on the expertise of those actually involved in the   production of knowledge, who are often best placed to assess the implications. In September 2003, in Geneva, a two-day international seminar was organised by the Association for the Promotion of Scientific Accountable Behaviour (APSAB) and the Fondation Science et Conscience de l’homme (FSC). The theme was the need to provide a genuine legal safety net guaranteeing the right to expression and the absence of reprisals against those whose professional activity causes them to 'blow the whistle' on certain areas of research and development. 

Lone voices
But who are these whistle-blowers? Some become whistle-blowers almost inadvertently by circulating validated results on sensitive subjects. For others, the choice is more deliberate: their conscience as both a scientist and a citizen causes them to denounce a potential risk or to pursue a line of research likely to make waves, despite intimidation 'from above'. At some point and to varying degrees they become victims of discrimination or coercion.

Two such researchers came to the meeting in Geneva, held – symbolically – within the walls of the International Labour Organisation, to relate their experiences. One was the British biophysicist of Hungarian origin, Arpad Putzaï, suspended from his duties at the Rowett Research Institute (Scotland), in 1998, for having gone on television to express his doubts about the harmlessness of genetically modified apples. The other was André Cicolella, an expert on glycol ethers and the potential health risk posed by these solvents, who was sacked from the Institut national recherche et sécurité (INRS, France) in 1994.

In recent years, more and more members of the scientific community have chosen to speak out in this way. But after a brief period in the media spotlight they often disappear from view. Today, who remembers the militant Russian environmental journalists Alexandre Nikitin and Giorgii Pasko, the Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu, the French doctors Jean-Jacques Melet and Jean-François Viel, or the Argentinean eco-toxicologist Guillermo Eguiazu? Often condemned to isolation by the governors or hierarchy of their institution, they lack the legal or legislative instruments to make themselves heard and defend their rights.

Democratic rights
Yet it was as long ago as 1974 that UNESCO adopted a recommendation on the status of scientists, stipulating that: 'The Member States must seek to favour conditions so that researchers, with the support of the public authorities, shall have the responsibility and the right […] to express themselves freely on the human, social and ecological value of certain projects, and in the final resort to withdraw from such projects on the grounds of conscience.' 

'This text is unfortunately little known,' regrets Bruno de Padirac, head of scientific policy studies at UNESCO (Paris). 'One possibility,' he suggests, 'would be to adopt this recommendation as a basis for drawing up an international convention that would have legal force.' It must also be remembered that one of the missions of UNESCO's Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), set up in 1997, is to sound the alarm when necessary.

In Europe, the United Kingdom seems to be the most advanced in this field, with its Public Interest Disclosure Act. This legislation applies to all employees, salaried or otherwise, private and public sector, and covers a great many situations – from negligence to health, security or environmental risks. Across the Atlantic, the Whistleblower Protection Act applies to public research only. This allows scientists and others to exercise their freedom of expression, even in cases where it is in conflict with other rules, such as confidentiality clauses. 

Support groups
A number of NGOs are supporting these whistle-blowers in the campaign for transparency. The International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility (INES), for example, is active in a number of areas but most notably the banning of nuclear weapons and ethical questions. 'On such matters, we try to lend our support to the whistle-blowers and intervened on behalf of the Argentinean Guillermo Eguiazu, for example, a scientist of national and international renown,' explains Armin Tenner, the organisation's president.

After carrying out research on the impact of pesticides and other chemical compounds on agriculture, Eguiazu campaigned for years to have his research results made public in the interests of consumer protection. 'He was subjected to serious intimidation at his university. His laboratory and equipment were destroyed by persons unknown, and his budgets were cut. We have given him financial support and are now looking for a sponsor to provide him with the material means to pursue his research,' continues Tenner.

A number of world famous scientists have also appealed publicly for their peers to act responsibly. Of particular note is Joseph Rotblat, the British nuclear physicist of Polish origin, co-founder of the Pugwash movement in 1957, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995. He stresses the need both to protect the whistle-blowers and to draw up a code of ethics – a kind of Hippocratic oath – that would commit young researchers.

Project on the table
The Geneva seminar looked in particular at the APSAB and FSC proposal to draw up an international convention – under the auspices of the International Labour Organisation – on a so-called active conscience clause(2), applicable  specifically to scientists and engineers working in any public or private organisation. The two associations want this project (see box) to be discussed in all quarters: with professional and trade union organisations, scientific societies, NGOS and foundations, national, European and international bodies, etc. 

(1) The researcher community is increasingly acquiring its own professional policy in the field of self-regulation and the denunciation of 'scientific misconduct' (fraudulent results, plagiarism, etc.). See in particular the compilation drawn up by the European Science Foundation, Good scientific practice in research and scholarship .
(2) That is, giving the right to take voluntary action to draw attention to potential dangers or to condemn certain practices. The passive conscience clause – the right to refuse to perform certain acts – is a legal reality already applicable in many situations, both professional (especially for doctors, psychotherapists, journalists) and individual (refusal to do military service, right to refuse medical treatment). 

Printable version

  A conscience clause for science?

The APSAB/FSC project is seeking to be of international legal force. It proposes that the whistle-blower should be able to inform an independent body(1) of any continuous and deliberate activity that violates:
• the principle ...
  Ethics at the heart of European research

Although the European Union has not adopted any position on the specific problem posed by the conscience clause, the ethical dimension of progress in science and technology at European level is receiving increasing attention in the Framework Programmes ...





      A conscience clause for science?

    The APSAB/FSC project is seeking to be of international legal force. It proposes that the whistle-blower should be able to inform an independent body(1) of any continuous and deliberate activity that violates:
    • the principle of precaution; • public health; • the environment; • and ethical and professional codes regarding scientific research and technological production. 

    An important point for discussion, called into question in particular by the trade union organisations invited to the debate, is that the conscience clause is limited to scientists and engineers. The APSAB and FSC believe this restriction is necessary because 'the objective is to help regulate key aspects of the system of production. The person who blows the whistle on serious problems should know the ins and outs of the risks involved. An executive without a scientific background who denounces facts because he or she reads in a "confidential" report that serious risks had been proven could find himself or herself in the middle of legal proceedings, face to face with legal experts whose knowledge is far greater than his or her own. This would be disastrous.' Under no circumstances must recourse to the clause be 'polluted' by cases which are essentially 'denouncements' resulting from a conflict – even justified, by abusive social practices, for example – between individuals and their employer. 

    In practice, the conscience clause project also includes proposals for the effective protection of the whistle-blower (respect for his or her anonymity if the denunciation is clearly not abusive, compensation for any harm suffered as a result of acting) as well as the extension of proceedings against entities responsible for the aforementioned violations if the information proves well founded.

    (1) Namely, an independent body in the country in which the headquarters of the organisation or company for which he or she works or the headquarters of the parent company are located.

      Ethics at the heart of European research

    Although the European Union has not adopted any position on the specific problem posed by the conscience clause, the ethical dimension of progress in science and technology at European level is receiving increasing attention in the Framework Programmes financed by the EU. Barbara Rhode, head of the unit responsible for 'ethical questions of research and science' at the Research Directorate-General, made the point in Geneva that – in addition to particular attention to sensitive questions raised by the life sciences, such as the use of human embryonic or fœtal tissue or the use of animals – ethical evaluation now extends to other fields, in particular sustainable development and international co-operation.  

    In December 2001, the Commission launched the 'Science and Society action plan' which includes six actions of ethical import. The Codes of conduct for ethics in research is also due to be published shortly by the Union, setting out the various codes of conduct adopted by research bodies, in the EU-15, the future Member States and some other countries such as Israel and Turkey. This inventory will make it possible to analyse their similarities and differences with a view to developing a harmonised and coherent European code of conduct for ethics.