Horizon 2020: The ethics project

Science|Business begins a series of viewpoints on the ethical dimensions of Europe’s biggest R&D programme

Richard L. Hudson, CEO & Editor, Science|Business

The launch this year of Europe’s biggest-ever research programme, Horizon 2020, marks a fundamental policy shift in Brussels – a greater emphasis on applied, goal-driven research and innovation. The reason for the change was debated for months in the European Parliament: to produce a ‘return’ for Europe’s rising R&D budgets, whether measured by jobs created, industries strengthened or societal problems solved. But have the ethical implications of this policy shift been adequately debated?

Science|Business wants to re-raise some of these persistent ‘questions of conscience,’ and invite broader debate. They include:

•    What is the value of public research funding?  Is it to advance knowledge, solve problems, create wealth, or do something else entirely?

•    Who should benefit from public research funding? Under what conditions may an individual researcher, company or university profit from the fruits of public research?

•    How much freedom of action should we allow publicly funded researchers? How should scientific fraud, plagiarism or financial mismanagement be handled, and by whom?

•    When people disagree on what research is permissible, who decides? Does EU funding require EU-wide uniformity, or can local mores prevail on research performed locally?

•    If taxpayers are funding the research, to what extent should they decide what’s studied? Can science be more democratic? Who’s the judge?

Of course, there are many other questions one could ask. Especially since World War II, the ethical dimensions of research have been fully debated by philosophers of science. The A-bomb was the most powerful demonstration of the real-world consequences of ostensibly fundamental research. Today, the scientific enterprise is vast, rich and powerful. In the EU, nearly one in 100 workers are classified as R&D personnel – and, depending on the country, somewhere between 16 per cent and 26 per cent of all jobs in the economy are based on generating or exploiting knowledge.[i] As a group, the rich countries of the world are spending 2.4 per cent of their gross domestic product on research – with a few, such as Finland, passing 4 per cent.

With this growth have come ethical problems – some clear-cut, some more difficult. We are not proposing answers, left or right, secular or religious, liberal or dirigiste. Our interest is solely in stimulating more debate on them. Horizon 2020 is the EU’s biggest-ever research programme: €79 billion, over seven years, to create knowledge, strengthen strategic science and technology sectors, and solve some of society’s greatest problems. It makes the EU the second-biggest non-military science funder in the world, after the US National Institutes of Health. Yet it includes some fundamental policy directions that, as the programme proceeds, need repeated re-examination in Brussels. Through this year, Science|Business is publishing occasional essays on these questions. We welcome your comments, or submissions.

Science|Business report: The value(s) of science: An open inquiry into the ethics of Horizon 2020

[i] OECD (2013), OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2013: Innovation for Growth, OECD Publishing. doi: 10.1787/sti_scoreboard-2013-en

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