INES 2000 conference -- Plenary speech

Barbro Westerholm

The culture of responsibility: How to establish universal standards of responsibilities for individuals and institutions


The freedom of the scientist to formulate questions and by means of research seek the answers is an important condition for gaining new knowledge. But with freedom follows responsibility and ability to handle the questions of ethics which arise throughout the research process, from the choice of subject for the scientific study right up to the application by society of research results.

The main responsibility for ethical review of a project must always lie with the individual scientist or the group with which he or she works. Some have an inborn feeling for what is right or wrong. However, most researchers need education in research ethics in order to be able to live up to their responsibility.

Therefore it is natural for the universities and university colleges to take on themselves the principle responsibility for ethical review e.g by means of education and the establishment of ethical committees which review the research projects from an ethical point of view.

Also reviewers of applications for funding and for publication in scientific journals are morally responsible for decisions to fund or to publish. Unethical research should neither be funded nor published.

It has also been discussed whether a researcher is morally responsible for the application of the knowledge he or she has produced. This, though, might be very difficult since the application of the knowledge might come generations later. Thus, a major moral responsibility must be placed on those who apply the researcher`s results.

The research community has also a responsibility to discuss the ethical problems which arise when new developments turn up. Genetic research and evolutionary biology are recent examples which have given rise to strong reactions in society. Ethical review of such development should be conducted continuously within the framwork of open debate. By means of an open debate different values can be weighed against each other eventually leading to a better understanding both among the researchers and the public about risks and benefits.