The relationship between science, scientists, and muscular state power is one of the main reasons why science diplomacy and the World Science Forum are of such great importance. However, in discussions on research integrity and the independence of science, attention often focuses on whether science and technology are, in themselves, ‘neutral,’ and whether it is only applications of science and technology that can be employed for violent, harmful or otherwise unethical purposes. This is a discussion that presumes there is a clear-cut distinction between pure and applied science. However, this distinction is one of emphasis, not mutual exclusion. In addition to muscular state power, the science industry—like other industries—is also subject to and enmeshed in the political realities of professionalism, finance and politics.Footnote 13 Scholars and scientists neither operate nor think inside a vacuum—they are not above and beyond power politics, or the subtle power dynamics that characterize us as social and political animals.
Ethics in science thus also concerns how we treat one another. Although there is great variation from state to state and from discipline to discipline, it is naïve to think that scientists’ working conditions—that are characterized by short-term fixed contracts, acute publication pressures, informal and formal hierarchies, and vulnerability to sexual harassment and mental health issues and burnout—do not circumscribe on the pursuit of science. In Norway, where I live and work, recent studies have shown how young scholars and scientists are especially prone to employing ‘questionable research practices,’ in the face of industry pressures to ‘publish or perish’—rather than the individual’s lack of moral integrity being to blame.Footnote 14 Ethical limits to what science can achieve is also an issue that demands a good deal of introspection within our own research communities. How do we structure them to enable talented young scholars and scientist to thrive and progress? And, crucially, how do we make sure that future generations of scholars and scientists are up to the task of conducting research ethically, and to reflect on the ethical ramifications of their pursuits?
To make it possible to create and maintain structures and cultures for ethical reflection within the academy of science, there is a need to reflect more deeply and collectively on the ethical capacity of scholars and scientists when confronting the following three emerging trends namely, bureaucratization, ethics washing, and co-optation.
Bureaucratization of Research Ethics
There is a trend—in the EU at least—toward increasing bureaucratization and judicialization of research ethics. This reflects a growing tendency for law to take over ethics, and thereby the actual assessment of what is and what is not ethical scientific practice. Examples abound of ethical guidelines being treated as if they have legal content, and are therefore potential violations of contract. The question ‘is this ethical?’ is replaced with the question ‘have you followed the rules?’ Out the window goes actual ethical consideration, discussion, and reflection—the discursive space where scholars and scientists reflect on what is right and what is wrong, and, not the least, what the limits of scientific pursuit should be. Part of this debate is currently ongoing in the disciplines of anthropology and criminology, as the newly implemented GDPR within EU member states and its requirement of individual direct consent to data collection and management may stamp out the entire ethnographic method as well as qualitative research on marginalized and deviant populations [10, 11].
As part of this development, ethics are increasingly put into the hands of the ever-growing numbers of university administrators, research managers, and lawyers hired to respond to the bureaucratization of research ethics. This necessarily leads to the appropriation—or removal—of ethical capacity from the academy of science, that is, of the power to decide whether a science project is ethical or not. Besides stripping the academic community of ethical capacity, this development may also become a tool used by (state) administrators and private and public funders alike to censor de facto ‘unfavorable’ research findings. ‘In a context of chronic underfunding of universities and their growing dependence on donor-driven research grants…[there is]a broader trend of donors and implementing partners who deliberately use ethical and methodological arguments to undermine essential research’ .
On the other side of the coin is a development known colloquially as ‘ethics washing’: ethical frameworks are set up—usually by private industry actors—to sidestep, or avoid, enforceable state regulation. Especially in technological development and innovation, ‘ethics is seen as the “easy” or “soft” option which can help structure and give meaning to existing self-regulatory initiatives. In this world, “ethics” is the new “industry self-regulation”’ .
At the same time, this also shows how private actors—especially from industry—are increasingly involved in research governance, including its ethical dimensions. This matters, because it implies that science is not only subject to but also fundamentally driven by a market logic and temporality where ethics are viewed purely as limits to the pursuit of profits, rather than as value judgments on what is just and what is not, and for whom. ‘When seen through this lens, ethical conduct cannot be seen as virtue or duty, it simply exists in order to prevent governmental regulation .’ Questions must be asked not only about the relationship between powerful industry actors and the state, but also about how these power structures are exacerbated in the global south, where the potential for state regulation of transnational companies is even weaker.Footnote 15 In this context, and contrary to the trend toward bureaucratizaton, there is too little law.
Finally, though this is by no means a new development—quite the contrary—the relationship between science and those who finance it, and the risk that the former will be co-opted by the latter, is one that demands constant attention. Because while the connection between power and knowledge have been recognized and exploited since the dawn of time, given the volatility and vulnerability of our planet and civilization alike, ‘the connection [has] become acutely problematic and its comprehension of greatest urgency’ . The third and final element influencing the ethical capacity of scholars and scientists is thus the danger of their independence being co-opted by external stakeholders, who may exploit scientific and technological advances for unethical and even violent purposes. The fact that the bulk of state funding for scientific research is often directed toward military ends underlines this problem. But another, more subtle dynamic, is the increased focus on ‘user involvement’ and ‘stakeholder engagement’ in external research grants. For young researchers, the ability to obtain grants is tantamount to guaranteeing their excellence; some grants are so prestigious that they become golden tickets to tenure. These developments not only raise the question of how ‘pure’ basic science is, but also whether we academics actually call the shots—especially, perhaps, when it comes to determination of ethical limits to our pursuits.Footnote 16