Ethics of Science and Technology: exploration of the frontiers of science and ethics (UNESCO)

When the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was established 60 years ago, its Constitution declared that peace must be founded upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind. Julian Huxley, the first Director-General, pointed out that in order to make science contribute to peace, security and human welfare, it would be necessary to relate the applications of science to a general scale of values. Guiding the development of science for the benefit of humanity will therefore imply ‘the quest for a restatement of morality … in harmony with modern knowledge’ (Huxley, 1946).

Since its foundation, UNESCO has been concerned with moral issues in relation to science. From the 1970s onwards, the emergence of the life sciences in particular has led to international examination of bioethical questions. This global focus on bioethics was institutionalized in 1993 with the establishment of the International Bioethics Committee (IBC) and a work programme and budget for international activities. The programme was expanded in 1998 with the foundation of the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), which addresses other areas of applied ethics such as environmental ethics, science ethics and technology ethics. Since 2002, UNESCO has also been coordinating the activities of international bodies in the area of bioethics through the Inter-Agency Committee on Bioethics. In the same year, UNESCO’s 191 Member States decided that ethics should be one of the priorities of the Organization.

The current revolution in science and technology has led to the concern that unbridled scientific progress is not always ethically acceptable. The need to establish common values and benchmarks, as well as to promote ethical principles and standards to guide scientific progress and technological development, is becoming increasingly acute, especially in developing countries that do not equally enjoy the benefi ts of scientifi c and technological advances. UNESCO’s work in ethics of science and technology reflects these global concerns. It examines such progress in light of ethical considerations rooted in the cultural, legal, philosophical and religious heritage of the various human communities.

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