Ethics in research issues

After having participated in a Workshop, organized by the  H2020 funded NewHorrizon project on responsible research and innovation, we investigated the question of the importance of non-regulatory / conventional ethics and research integrity issues in European Public Research Organizations to look beyond standard ethics regulatory issues and processes.

In our everyday life of a Center for Innovation and Technology Transfer, we meet many researchers. Whenever we ask them a question: “What do you think about ethics in research?”, we get a specific answer. The answer is: “—-“ (silence and a perplexed look in their eyes). Thus, we decided to carry out a short survey about the perception of ethical behavior in different situations within public research organizations from researcher’s personal and institutional point of view.

The ethics issues we were interested in, went beyond the conventional ethical issues (as integrity, responsibility, honesty, competence) or more philosophical ones (dignity, non-maleficence) and strived away from the IPR issues (confidentiality, justice in incentivation) and addressed concrete situations in which those could or should be applied in a very practical way (examples of situations of a work-life balance, equality in science, establishment of ethically reviewed procedures in financing distribution or promotion etc). Also, the issues we set to analyze, were broader, but due to addressing specific situations also more concrete than the ones included in the [1 Consensus statement].

Even though this document emphasizes that the responsibility for ethical research lies with everyone who is active in research, but especially with leaders in research performing organizations, it remains open that the researchers’ morals alone cannot ensure research integrity; good conditions for exercising integrity must also be created at the level of the organization and the research system. Also, in short-term, project-based positions, the role of the project leader in instilling ethical standards is crucial, as staff on shorter contracts are often not integrated in the organization to the same extent as permanent staff.

Having considered this, our analysis was based on a specific set of situations that were described as potentially ethically problematic.

The survey took place among the members of the TTO Circle, which currently are 31. This is a finite amount of data, but highly prominent at the same time, as high-level officials of Public Research Organizations are involved in the TTO Circle operations.

The TTO Circle stands for the European Technology Transfer Offices circle. This is a network of research institutions, established with the aim to bring together the major public research organizations in order to share best practices, knowledge, and expertise, perform joint activities and develop a common approach towards international standards for the professionalization of technology transfer.

The European TTO circle gathers the largest public research organizations across Europe. The network comprises currently 31 organizations (198349 scientific staff, 5243 softwares, 34338 patents, and 4143 start-ups). The partners signed a Memorandum of Understanding formalizing their collaboration. They agreed to strengthen Europe’s ability to create innovative products and services for the market.

Jožef Stefan Institute has become a member of the TTO Circle in 2016. During the 2018 and 2019 a survey and a situational analysis of research ethics attitudes and behaviors has been carried out to understand the level of inclusivity for ethics and ethical assessments within the situations that arise in research operations.

We collected 22 filled out questionnaires out of the 31 institutions.

The TTO Circle organizations are a representative sample of the highest level of the European research attitudes. An almost 71% response rate confirms a high involvement of these organizations with ethical issues.

The analysis showed a clear bias of the researchers towards already established procedures (those were named as necessary to be in ethical assessment), but less prevalent were topics that affect everyday life (work-life balance, agreement with the cultural and social environment about the research topics).

The distribution of institutional orientations showed that the institutions try to address first the situations, connected to ethical aspects, that are also connected to financial and research position benefits, whereas every day research and research work aspects are currently being less considered.

The analysis of forms in which the organizations take ethical issues into account showed that the organizational level of ethical responsibility is higher than the personal one, which could lead to improvements in ethical assessments of particular settings in the future years.

The type of input that the respondents think should be available from their organizations in many situations where ethical assessments might be necessary, shows that the research community requests their research organizations to impose a more transparent rule set in a more organized and systematic way.

This showed that even though the organizations do take ethical issues into account, there are improvements to be made in the way how organized and transparent are the processes of imposing these onto the research community.

Dr. Špela Stres, MBA, Master of Law

Notes
1.      Ellen‑Marie Forsberg et al.. 2018. EUROPEAN CONSENSUS STATEMENT. Sci Eng Ethics, 24:1023–1034. Working with Research Integrity — Guidance for Research Performing Organisations: The Bonn PRINTEGER Statement

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