Background on the Universal Ethical Code

Following conversations at a Carnegie meeting (a regular informal meeting of science ministers and advisers from G8 countries) in 2004, Sir David King, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, convened a small working group to help him to consider the issues around developing a universal ethical code of conduct for scientists. The group agreed that it would be most useful to develop a set of guidelines that would:

  • Have an educational role, raising awareness among scientists and the public of the ethical and professional responsibilities of scientists;
  • Capture a small number of broad principles that are shared across disciplinary and institutional boundaries, so that it would be relevant to anyone whose work uses scientific methods including social, natural, medical and veterinary science, engineering and mathematics; 
  • Be adopted voluntarily by individual scientists and scientific institutions. Many scientific institutions already have codes of conduct and ethical frameworks in place, generally specific to the interests and needs of that institution. A set of guidelines would not seek to replace institutions' own frameworks. Rather, it would describe principles common to the practice of all good science that institutions would be encouraged to adopt and integrate into their own structures, thus supporting and encouraging individual scientists to reflect on the guidelines as part of their normal work.

[the members of the group were: Sir David King (Chair), Dr David Coles, Dr David Fisk, Baroness Onora O’Neill, Professor Michael Reiss, Professor John Uff QC; and Council for Science and Technology (CST) members: Professor Geoffrey Boulton, Professor Janet Finch, Professor Kathy Sykes, Sir Paul Nurse, Dr Mark Walport.]

Rigour, respect and responsibility: A universal ethical code for Scientists is the product of the group’s work. It aims to ‘foster ethical research, to encourage active reflection among scientists on the wider implications and impacts of their work, and to support constructive communication between scientists and the public on complex and challenging issues’.

Sir David King has circulated the code to his G8 and EU colleagues, and has to trialed them with government scientists as part of his role as the Head of Profession. He asked the Council for Science and Technology (CST), the government’s top-level advisory body on strategic science and technology policy issues, to look at how the guidelines could be disseminated more widely and how, in practice, they could have a useful role. 

The code has already received high-level attention both within the UK and Europe. Consultees included a wide range of respected bodies including among others research funders, universities, the National Academies, professional bodies and learned societies, industry bodies, schools, colleges and the Trades Unions. The Council for Science and Technology's views on the code can be found under external links on the right.

To pilot the guidelines among government scientists, a working group was formed from the Science and Society Champions Network. The pilot began in earnest in September 2005, and will report back to Sir David King in autumn 2006. This working group consists of the following governmental organisations:

Department of Health
The Environment Agency
Veterinary Laboratories Agency
Forestry Commission
Defence Science and Technology Laboratory
The Met Office
Pesticide Safety Directorate