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Defining science and scientific researchers: it’s a whole new world

A new UNESCO recommendation sets guidelines regarding the working conditions of researchers and the environment required for science to be conducted in an ethical manner.


Defining what is science and who are scientific researchers may initially seem like an easy task, but it is potentially much more complicated than expected. Science has evolved over the past decades with the advent of new technologies, the different ways they can be developed, and new societal needs. The role of researchers has also changed. The need for meaningful science-society interaction is greater than ever.  

This has become obvious for governments across the world, who identified the need to develop clearer guidelines for the promotion of science and ethics policies worldwide, while informing how science is practiced, regulated and promoted. As part of this, the member states of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) asked the organization to modify the definition of researcher.

Most researchers in Canada and abroad may not be aware that the conditions in which they operate were defined by UNESCO through the 1974 Recommendation on the Status of Scientific Researchers. This initial, unfortunately largely unknown, recommendation defined who is a researcher and how research should be conducted.

With changes in technologies, sources of funding, recognition of ethical issues and the need for accountability, it became clear that the recommendation needed a facelift. In 2017, the UNESCO member states unanimously adopted the Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers, replacing the original 1974 recommendation. It sets guidelines and values regarding the working conditions of researchers as well as the environment required for science to be conducted in a positive and ethical manner. It speaks to contemporary issues around equal access, open science and transparency.

Promoting science in a new world

It is not surprising to read that the new recommendation includes a stronger link between science and society and aims to ensure that research outcomes can best support the goals of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In practice, this means that the recommendation enhances the connection between science, researchers, and the rules and policies that dictate their work. It recognizes science as a common good and its role in sustainable development. Science, like education, is a country’s critical investment in its future generations and society.

However, science must be conducted in an ethical manner to ensure it benefits all. Researchers have a duty to conduct science with integrity and transparency. They should strive to share data and results through open science systems. They should also be safe to practice science in a context in which freedom of expression is guaranteed and where non-discriminatory access to education and employment opportunities support the participation of women and underrepresented groups. The recommendation also strongly encourages international collaboration. This means that, for developed countries, support should be available to help reach out to scientists in developing countries.

What does this mean for Canada?

As it is endorsed by UNESCO member states, it also means that the new recommendation has political standing and the power to influence national codes of conduct, policies and guidelines related to science and ethics. It will require governments to periodically report on the progress that they make towards implementing the recommendation. For Canada and its universities, colleges, research institutes and industry, there is a need to discuss how such reporting will be completed and what it will bring for researchers. Will this mean new ways of working and doing research? This is the type of dialogue that Canada should engage in to better understand the consequences of this new recommendation.

Science is a powerful tool to enhance peace and the well-being of all citizens and has an important role in policy and decision-making in all countries. Creating a supportive environment for science and researchers is critical. Governments, along with other public and private sectors, including universities, have a responsibility to create the conditions that will enable science to flourish and advance in order for it to be useful and relevant to society.

However, we also have to remind ourselves that as researchers and educators of future generations, scientific and ethical conduct and integrity must be maintained to ensure credibility. Within the context of the new recommendation, Canada has an opportunity to redefine its efforts, contributions and collaborations in science to build a better world.

See here (PDF) for a summary of the recommendation, or visit the UNESCO website to learn more about UNESCO’s work in the ethics of science and technology. For an example of text presenting avenues for reflection and action related to the recommendation, read “The Status of Science. The UNESCO Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers: Issues, Challenges and Opportunities” by Michèle Stanton-Jean.

 Liette Vasseur is a professor in the department of biological sciences at Brock University, where she holds the UNESCO Chair in Community Sustainability: From Local to Global. She is also president of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.

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