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Topical Overview: Scientific research and ethics committees

Accelerated scientific and technological progress has given rise to a number of serious ethical questions that need to be taken into due consideration when assessing developments in medicine, science and technology. Public fears must also be addressed to avoid creating an envi...

Accelerated scientific and technological progress has given rise to a number of serious ethical questions that need to be taken into due consideration when assessing developments in medicine, science and technology. Public fears must also be addressed to avoid creating an environment hostile to scientific and technological innovation. Europe is a mixture of diverse ethical, philosophical, historical and religious backgrounds, which, in the past, have led to diverging views on ethical questions. On 27 and 28 January 2005, a conference entitled 'Research ethics committees in Europe: facing the future together' took place in Brussels. The aim of the conference was to launch a debate on the identification of good practices, and on considering the difficulties in ethics in science. The conference was also an opportunity to open a dialogue on future initiatives and actions in this field. Examples of sensitive issues which require ethical reflection are human stem cell research, human tissue banking, healthcare in the information society, doping in sport, clinical research in developing countries, human embryo research and genetic testing in the workplace. Bearing in mind that today's choices, actions and decisions may well have implications for future generations as well, the European Commission calls for a responsible approach to these emerging science and technology fields. In the Sixth Framework Programme for research (FP6), the Commission introduced a reference to ethical issues, stating that 'activities under FP6 should be conducted in compliance with ethical principles'. Thus, research activities carried out within FP6 need to respect fundamental ethical principles, including the founding principles of the EU, reflected in Article 6 of the Treaty on European Union. All proposals for research to be funded by the Commission are asked to identify any ethical issues raised by the project. Following a successful scientific evaluation, these projects, and any others the Comission has identified as raising ethical issues, are assessed to verify their compliance with ethical rules. The assessment covers potential issues arising from research involving persons unable to give their consent, children, pregnant women and volunteers for clinical trials. The use in research of human biological samples, of personal data and of animals is also verified. The activities carried out under the 'Science and Society' theme of FP6 aim to establish dialogue between researchers, industrialists, policy makers and citizens, and thus to encourage the development of harmonious relations between science and society. In order to contribute to the responsible use of scientific and technological progress in harmony with fundamental ethical values, a chapter on the ethical dimension in science and new technologies was included in the 'Science and Society Action Plan', adopted in December 2001. The Action Plan's chapter on 'Responsible science at the heart of policy making' draws attention to gaining and maintaining public trust. This should be done by making information on ethical issues more accessible and by encouraging public dialogue on ethics in science with non-governmental organisations, industry, religious and cultural communities. The Action Plan also highlights the need to promote the awareness of researchers themselves with regard to the ethical dimension of their activities, and links between National Ethics Committees. Furthermore, it aims to protect animals in research, and seeks to encourage a dialogue with other regions of the world in order to explore and understand differences in attitudes and ethical frameworks. The European Group on Ethics (EGE), set up in 1997 by the Commission, provides independent advice on ethical aspects of science and new technologies in view of preparation and implementation of Community legislation or policies. It helps the Commission by issuing opinions on such matters as policies on culturally sensitive ethical questions in science. The secretariat of the group is an integral part of the Group of Policy Advisers. In 2004, the EGE carried out an examination of the role, operation and work of the National Ethics Committees of the new EU Member States. All EU countries have a form of a national ethics committee, or are in the process of creating one. Many are facing a number of obstacles, however, such as the lack of resources. Lack of resources can force committees to charge fees for their opinions, which can then be controversial. In addition, their activities may be restricted and the dissemination of information obstructed. Lack of independence can also be a problem, notably when the ethics committee is directly attached to a ministry, such as the Ministry of Health, according to the EGE. In its Science and Society workprogramme for 2005-06, the Commission is currently planning an analysis of the existing infrastructures on ethics in research in the ten new Member States and in the candidate countries. It also wants to promote training courses on ethical issues and to create a European textbook and syllabus for training researchers in Europe and beyond. An impact study on ethical research funded by the Commission in the current and previous framework programmes is also foreseen. A draft report on the "Provision of Support for Producing a European Directory of Local Ethics Committees (LECs)" by the Institute of Science and Ethics (IWE), based in Bonn, Germany, was published recently, gathering information on Research Ethics Committees (RECs) in the 33 countries of the European Research Area (ERA). The report sets criteria for the committees and analyses their activities. It studies the similarities, differences and main challenges facing the various European RECs. The report also compares its finding with the available information from the US, Japan and India.

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