We are proposing a move from a negative ethics focused on avoiding harm to a positive research ethics. These new ethics are needed to guide the global scientific community in relation to civil society and politics during the climate and ecological crises.
Do no harm
According to the “do no harm” imperative, researchers have a responsibility to avoid hurting humans or animals directly involved in their research. But what does “do no harm” mean in the midst of climate and ecological crises?
The “do no harm” principle should thus be broadened in two ways:
it should include humans, animals and ecosystems that are traditionally not considered part of the research process, but can be negatively affected by it
it should better account for the long-term, indirect or unintended consequences of research projects or new technologies.
But if averting the climate crisis requires the complete transformation of society within ten years, is it enough for research to “do no harm”? Inspired by post-colonial approaches to research ethics, we suggest moving beyond this negative principle and towards a positive, regenerative science.
This science would actively contribute to the project of regenerating society and ecosystems. It would be motivated by an analysis of the suffering already taking place and acknowledge historical responsibilities and power relations.
Act with integrity
The principle of integrity asks researchers to follow rigorous protocols, disclose conflicts of interest, refrain from manipulating data, and abstain from plagiarism. But can science be rigorous if it overlooks environmental variables?
Some disciplines ignore the predictions of IPCC reports, as well as indications of mass extinction and ecosystem collapse. They also struggle to reflect the complex and delicate interconnection between humanity and nature in their practical recommendations.
For example, by focusing heavily on GDP growth, mainstream economics portrays our planetary habitat mostly as a resource to use or exploit. The idea of geoengineering also largely rests on an understanding of our life-support systems as a set of disconnected pieces that can be engineered.
Ultimately, “integrity means wholeness”. It implies acknowledging that we are parts of a fragile and interconnected web of life, which we need to preserve.
Researchers should thus account for ecological dimensions in their analyses. They should also interrogate the conception of the humanity-nature relationship that implicitly underpins their work.
According to the “responsibility” principle, research should be relevant to society and communicated to the public. But in a climate crisis, findings can be so dramatic, their implications for society so huge and controversial, that the word “responsibility” takes a new, heavier meaning.
Others are tempted to adjust their research to political demands. An example is the inclusion of unrealistic amounts of “negative carbon emissions” in climate models to satisfy policymakers. This was criticised for unintentionally providing a scientific cover-up for climate inaction.
The research ethics sketched here need to be further developed. They can then be incorporated into global guidelines for individual researchers, but also for governments, universities and funding agencies.
Academic research will be at the heart of any solution to the climate and ecological crises. Embracing this responsibility and facing these existential threats requires much more from universities than the adoption of sustainability plans.