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22 November 2017

Two parts chemistry, three parts ethics

An IAP-OPCW workshop for chemists and biochemists, part of the TWAS Science Diplomacy programme, explored dilemmas and challenges in doing research responsibly, and bridging the science-policy divide.

What if you’re a chemist working on a pharmaceutical problem but you happen upon a discovery that could be used as a chemical weapon? 

Should you censor it, and keep the discovery secret, never leaving the most dusty filing cabinet of your lab? Or should you make the discovery public because it nonetheless advances knowledge about the natural world, which is the fundamental purpose of scientific research?

This was the kind of dilemma discussed during an exercise at a recent workshop organised by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) and TWAS called “Policy and Diplomacy for Scientists: Introduction to responsible research practices in chemical and biochemical sciences.” 

Alastair Hay, an environmental toxicologist in the medical school at the University of Leeds, ran the exercise and said it had two main messages. First, he wanted the participants to think about the policy-based controls around chemicals. But he also wanted the exercise to teach chemists about responsibility and ethical issues by creating stimulating conversation about the moral gray areas they are likely to encounter as chemists. 

The workshop, held 12 to 15 September 2017 as part of the TWAS Science Diplomacy programme, drew over 30 researchers from across the developed and developing world to discuss the complicated and sometimes daunting ways that chemistry and ethical concerns can intermingle. Participants included young researchers from Argentina, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kazakhstan, Mauritius, Nigeria and Sri Lanka. 

IAP is a global network representing some 130 academies of science and medicine worldwide, and the OPCW is the implementing body for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force in 1997 and currently has 192 states parties.

When interests collide

Many scientific education programmes across the world don't have ethics curricula, yet many scientists are interested in ethic issues around scientists, including those in some from developing countries lagging in this knowledge – a need the workshop sought to help facilitate.  The workshop used role-playing exercises, requiring participants to weigh different interests, and fostering discussion. A business’s desire to expand, environmental regulations and other factors can conflict with a scientist's own curiosity and interest in the expansion of human knowledge.

“Chemists have unique skills and the opportunity to be really creative or really destructive,” Hay said. “The power that they have comes with a responsibility. And that’s what these exercises are encouraging people to think about.”

It’s a matter of conflicting interests, he said, and it’s important for chemists to realize that policymakers often make decisions based on the concerns of the public or the values of their government. At the same time, policymakers should understand that scientists have to be curious, and they can’t place constraints on that curiosity without jeopardizing the pace of scientific progress.

“Policy is really about values. What are the values of a policymaker that decided for our security purposes we need chemical weapons? Scientists certainly have ethical responsibilities, but so do policymakers. Giving consideration to ethical issues benefits from a holistic view.”–Alistair Hay

More than anything else though, open and honest dialogue between scientists and policymakers is essential.

“If there are known problems, you want those voiced at the beginning,” said Hay. “You want consideration given to how you mitigate any risks. If there are products, is the end-product worth the risk? And discuss all the options that go around it. It’s responsible conduct that we’re trying to emphasize.

“I think there isn’t always a black-and-white answer to any of these questions,” Hay added. “Depending on your circumstances, you may have to change your position. A lot of it is about being open and transparent where you can be.”

OPCW science policy adviser Jonathan Forman, who spoke at the workshop, said that the challenge is rooted in communication. Conversations between policymakers and scientists are often one-sided, and policymakers concerned with ethics will talk to scientists as if the scientists have the chief responsibility. But policymakers often appear to be disconnected from the technical side – or perhaps uncomfortable with discussing science – which can make for an emotionally draining, frustrating and unbalanced relationship. 

“Sometimes the conversation is not even connecting because simply the words that they’re using have a different meaning to each group,” he said. “Sometimes they’re having completely different conversations even though they’re talking to each other.”

The chemical weapons programmes of World War I tleft behind unexploded munitions that governments are still cleaning up today, over 100 years later. Yet conversation centers on the scientists and their responsibilities, obscuring the strong role of decision-makers who enabled and incentivized chemists to apply their knowledge to war. 

“Policy is really about values,” he said. “What are the values of a policymaker that decided for our security purposes we need chemical weapons? Scientists certainly have ethical responsibilities, but so do policymakers. Giving consideration to ethical issues benefits from a holistic view.”

It’s not as if chemical societies have ignored ethical concerns, Forman pointed out. The available material on ethics in chemistry from the scientific community is already so enormous it can be overwhelming. The drafters of the Hague Ethical Guidelines collected 142 different codes of conduct and ethics developed by chemical and scientific societies, chemical companies, and regulatory bodies. The available material comprised over 1,000 pages of text. But Forman said that when this compilation is discussed with policymakers, the most common response is that they didn’t know these codes exist or that the chemists had overthought the ethical issues.

“I think the key is communication across the science-policy divide, and that’s not an easy thing to overcome,” he said, noting that there are always variables outside of scientists’ control. “How do you speak to policymakers? Are they even willing to accept a scientific conversation? These questions brings out some passionate responses, particularly in our current environment where scientific concerns and technical realities are being politicized. Researchers don’t want to engage in a conversation where their words might get twisted and used against them.”

Bringing international ethics home

Workshop partcipants from the developing world said their experience in Trieste would help them raise awareness of ethics in the chemical sciences back in their home countries. 

Imee Martinez, a chemistry professor and director for international linkages from the University of the Philippines in Diliman, said she came because her country is developing  benefits and other incentives to lure diaspora scientists back home to the Philippines. 

Scientists who understand internationally important knowledge on ethics are an important element ensuring that homegrown science is credible – and that can help attract the talent to return and work at home. So she’s planning to use the workshop to come up with ideas for an ethics syllabus that could be used by her government and university.

“We don’t actually have anything on ethics at all for our future chemists,” she said. “So that leads to the question, what kind of chemists are we actually training?”

Ramia Albakain, a chemist from the University of Jordan, said students never study courses in science diplomacy in her home country. But, she says, science diplomacy could help improve the university's curriculum, which in turn could help build its prestige. The ultimate dream is to have a special course on science diplomacy in chemistry for students. 

“When I go back, I will make a presentation on what I learned from this workshop and try to build a strong ethic curriculum in my home university,” Albakain said. “I’ll explain that science diplomacy and ethics are needed for students and researchers. So this workshop was definitely helpful for me to know how to improve this in Jordan.” 

Sindra Lutchmee Summoogum, a chemical and environmental engineer from the University of Mauritius, said the lessons of the workshop were useful because most researchers in the academic world are aware of ethics, but sometimes they might have difficulty communicating such values to students. She is also hoping to initiate a strong ethics curriculum in her home country.

“You sometimes need more courses and lectures to teach about ethics and applying them,” she said. “We don’t have a clear way to build an ethics curriculum yet, so this workshop was definitely helpful there.”

Sean Treacy

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