Society and regional strategies 3 min
Ethical implications of major international agreements: the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement on climate change
The INRA-CIRAE-IFREMER Joint Ethics Committee delivered its tenth opinion, which examines the ethical implications for research of major international agreements: the Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by the United Nations in 2015, and the Paris Agreement on climate change, adopted following the 21st Conference of the Parties, also in 2015. The committee issued its opinion following the joint referral by top management at the three organisations.
Published on 01 September 2021
The Joint Ethics Committee focused on three main questions:
- The theoretical foundations of these international agreements, including the need to improve human well-being and protect the biosphere;
- How to include cultural or practice-based criteria related to different societies or social groups in research when implementing principles expressed using universal language;
- How to manage the application of these major international agreements and determine priorities in research governance and researchers’ practices.
Should the environment be protected because it contributes to people’s well-being and our production capacity, or because it is a means to an end? The Joint Ethics Committee suggests that the choice does not have to be one or the other: efforts can be made to balance both approaches and consider actions across time and space. The committee calls on researchers to always examine what makes each situation different despite the general nature of the major UN agreements.
How can cultural differences between societies and social groups be taken into account when implementing major international agreements that are expressed in universal language? The Joint Ethics Committee notes that “these differences should not be considered obstacles for collaboration; on the contrary, they foster progress and can be hugely beneficial for research work when acknowledged in accordance with best practices”. Taking different cultural practices into account can be encouraged through a territorial-based approach rather than focusing on the production sector, as well as by raising awareness among foreign workers about how local populations think, express themselves and react so researchers can respect these differences in their work practices. Finally, the Joint Ethics Committee recommends decentralisation, capacity-building for local teams, new forums for debate, and bottom-up approaches to balance the top-down approach of major international agreements.
What are the implications for research governance and practices? Interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are tools that can help researchers better take into account the multiple and sometimes contradictory objectives of major international agreements. Researchers must be careful when involved in policy-making processes to maintain their scientific integrity without encroaching on policymakers’ or citizens’ responsibilities. Their role is to provide information and advice, but not to make decisions. The committee recommends the generalised use of declarations of interest by researchers. With regard to research funding, researchers should refuse to get involved in projects with aims that do not align with the objectives of their institutions or major international agreements.
Extract from introduction by Axel Kahn, president and Michel Badre, vice-president
In its opinion, the Committee sought to return to the original meaning of the agreements, which was sometimes masked by the results of the drafting process. This was an essential condition for determining how, when dealing with local realities, the operational action of the research teams could or should be affected.
The Committee began by noting that the United Nations’ vision of progress and development for the peoples of the world has evolved over the past 70 years: In the immediate post-war years, the main concern was a return to peace, followed by the fight against hunger, particularly with the “green revolution” in the 1960s. The year 1972, with the Stockholm Conference and the Meadows Report, marked a new awareness of environmental issues. The concept of sustainable development finally came to the fore in 1992 with the Brundtland Report and the Rio Conference. The “Millennium Development Goals” in 2000, followed by the “Sustainable Development Goals” in 2015, clarified this concept, which was initially defined only by the combined consideration of economic, ecological and social issues in the short and long term.
As a result of these developments, it is possible to set out the principles on what is good for both humankind and the environment. The ethical dimension is obvious. These principles appear to be underpinned by multiple approaches. The concept of social, economic and human development depends on improving human rights, individual well-being and social justice. As for environmental preservation, it presupposes respect for nature’s value in every sense: social utility, intrinsic value and heritage value for the community, across various temporal and spatial scales. All these approaches are found in the 17 SDGs from 2015.
The issue of cultural differences is about striking a balance among the environment’s many values – this balance varies from country to country and, within each country, from one social group to another, depending on the history and priorities of each place and time.
Such a broadening of the ethical field in which researchers operate has led the Committee to make recommendations to the organisations and their research teams.