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Research ethics between regulation and reflexivity

L’éthique de la recherche entre réglementation et réflexivité
Ética de la investigación entre regulación y reflexividad
Sarah Carvallo
Traduction de Jeremy E. Dali
Cet article est une traduction de :
L’éthique de la recherche entre réglementation et réflexivité [fr]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
Ética de la investigación entre regulación y reflexividad [es]


En une trentaine d’années, l’éthique de la recherche s’est généralisée à tous les champs scientifiques et a consolidé ses dispositifs, critères et procédures à l’échelle internationale. Articulée avec la déontologie et l’intégrité scientifique à travers une réglementation proliférante, elle accompagne les chercheurs et les institutions pour leur permettre ou les obliger à assumer leur responsabilité et ainsi renforcer la confiance des citoyens envers la science et les scientifiques. Censée faire consensus et clarifier les normes d’une bonne recherche, elle induit néanmoins des contraintes et des obligations, qui suscitent des confusions, des tensions, voire des contradictions en contrecarrant parfois d’autres normes : performance, accélération, globalisation, concurrence, mais aussi sérendipité, liberté, réflexivité. L’analyse des discours et pratiques met au jour la reconfiguration contemporaine des liens entre science et valeurs et fait apparaître l’éthique comme un problème plus qu’une solution.

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  • 1 Pestre and Gingras criticise this simplistic dichotomy between pure/impure science before and after (...)
  • 2 This is, for example, the vision defended by the report that served as a reference for redefining t (...)

1Having dominated business, politics and finance, ethical discourse and regulation are now essential in the research world. While ethical and legal issues in research already existed, they remained specific to a field, case or type of action. Nowadays, ethics concerns research in a generic way: it has not simply spread from one discipline to another in a linear trajectory, but rather has reached a threshold of genericity sufficient to encompass any discipline, any laboratory, any institution and every individual researcher everywhere. Of course, no one can dispute the importance of accountability, long-term environmental consequences, transparency and participation in the sciences, as everywhere else. Especially since this discourse echoes the transformations of research and higher education since the 1980s: how can we now attest to the legitimacy of science in relation to other modes of production and the dissemination of knowledge via the internet? How do we reconcile the innovation race and research financing through industrial partnerships with the more classical values of science as a universally shared commodity? How do we together maintain intense competition between individuals, teams, universities, regions and nations (Anderson et al., 2007), and the collective and transnational dimension of research particularly marked in Europe that values collective, transdisciplinary and transnational projects? How can we anticipate the long-term effects of innovation? Can we reconcile the expectations of various private and public research stakeholders, and if so, how? Not that science was previously pure and then became impure (Pestre, 2003; Gingras and Roy, 2006 - especially Chapters 5 and 6;1 Shapin, 2010), but the criteria of performance and efficiency (evaluated in particular by quantitative indicators relating to publications, patents or partnerships and returns on investment) translate to a banal and restrictive management style in the public services, and particularly in research, commonly known as “new public management” (Bezes and Musselin, 2015; Gingras, 2014; Barats et al., 2018). Ethics is therefore often conceived as a neutral instrument capable of rationalising collective decisions in concert with an awareness by individuals of their responsibilities as stakeholders in collective systems.2 Ethics fits into the panoply of benchmarking to mobilise, motivate and become more efficient (Bruno, 2008; Bruno and Didier, 2013).

  • 3 In this article we will not develop the question of expertise, which constitutes a “decisive” eleme (...)

2Here we must question the evidence of how ethics frames research, and how this framework is connected to performance criteria and means of implementation through governing bodies and standardised evaluation tools that control researchers’ practices, but may also influence them in advance and encroach on the freedom of research. In other words, this collective article aims to understand the logic that structures the discourses and practices of research ethics, but also to question its evidence not in order to denounce or lament, but to identify the issues at work in the mobilisation of ethics to respond to transformations in research. Furthermore, its aim is to find out whether this logic, as it is currently defined, is responsive, or rather to what extent it is now a part of research and expert practices.3 It is why this dossier does not adopt an overarching or theoretical position on what ethics is or should be, but starts by analysing the discourses on research ethics, regulations or soft law implemented in the name of ethics, and ethical “needs” expressed by researchers, institutions and citizens. To do this, we will begin by examining the tensions, concerns, conflicts and the complexity of situations in which researchers find themselves in order to reassess the reasons for the ethical debate in the sciences, by assuming that research constitutes an unsolvable problem that is essentially contested (Gallie, 1956; Ricoeur, 1991: 166).

Truth or retrospective illusion?

  • 4 Gilbert Hottois and Marie Gaille remind us that bioethics does not dissociate life from the environ (...)

3Sense can only be made of the current situation in the light of the history of science as it has developed since the 1980s. Ethics, or the need for ethics in research, emerged publicly through the neologism of bioethics (coined in 1971 by biochemist van Rensselaer Potter to launch a global reflection on life in its environmental conditions).4 This was then limited to the field of life sciences and biomedicine - particularly in genetics in line with the Asilomar Conference (1974); with the publication of the Principles of Biomedical Ethics (Beauchamp, Childress, 1979) a theory was developed within the field of bioethics, and then a practical methodology - for example, the request for informed consent (Bonnet and Robert, 2009). In the same year, the publication of Hans Jonas’ Principle Responsibility thematised the issues concerning research in terms of respect for future generations: technological advances raise new problems that are no longer part of the ethical framework we had up until now. Jonas thematises these problems in terms of risks and ethics in terms of command and control (Larrère, 2003; Kourilsky and Viney, 2000, 2007; Godard, 2005, 2006). The 1992 Rio Conference incorporated this philosophy into the concept of sustainable development (already formulated in 1987 in the Brundtland Report) to structure the doctrine of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development by identifying precaution as a principle. Subsequently, Europe and especially France (Environment Code, 1995; Constitution, 2005) endorsed the notion of precaution - despite the many criticisms, however contradictory (Ewald, 1998; Dupuy, 2004). The Rio+20 Conference in 2012 marked a shift in United Nations development and environmental policy, undoubtedly due to repeated refusals by the United States or China to subscribe to the themes of sustainable development and the principle of precaution.

4By way of reconfigurations, ethics continues to be mobilised in the context of research and development: the issues of risk and research of principles remain central, but grow under new figures marked by the procedure for collective discussion outlined by Habermas and Apel (c. infra), which became widespread in the 1990s through the creation of ethical committees that regulated research by project (in the United States, the National Bioethics Advisory Committee; in France, the National Advisory Council of Ethics in 1983, Advisory Committees for the Protection of Persons in Biomedical Research in 1988; in the EU, the first European ethics advisory board in 1991, the Group of Advisers on the Ethical Implications of Biotechnology 1991).5 The framing of ethics in this way extends beyond the domains of life and the environment and progressively encompasses all areas of research in the 2000s, when the OECD proclaimed the need to ensure ethics in the public service and for the European Union to entrust the European Group on the Ethics of Science to cover all areas of science and technology in order to prepare European legislative work and promote European values (universality, the principle of subsidiarity, procedures to strengthen legal safeguards, etc.) (Tallacchini, 2009). In line with the Lisbon Strategy for creating the European Research Area, the goal is, through research, to become the most dynamic and competitive economy in the world and promote better social cohesion and gender equality, and to create more interesting professions (for example, in the Science and Society Action Plan, 2002).6 Therefore, despite the fact that the instantiations or figures of ethics evolve and metamorphose, they all seem to express at a given moment and in rapidly worn-out rhetoric a need felt by citizens, researchers, institutions and agencies to evaluate the potential consequences and accompany the rapidity of techno-scientific changes by and in research. This translates immediately into practical constraints for researchers in terms of respect for procedures, evaluation and control, but also by a “strategic” reorientation of certain projects either by opportunity or by the reverse effect of presumed censorship when evaluating projects (for example, in undercover research, where researchers hide their identity from respondents, or ethnography, especially in terms of deviance - which cannot determine a priori the conditions of the investigation).

  • 7 On good science as rationalisation (Weber, [1904-1905-1920], 2003, Science as a vocation(Wissenscha (...)

5The rise of ethics goes hand in hand with the end of - or very sharp decline in - the dominant scientific model of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which was based on the practices of experimental physics. This model served as a prism to characterise a type of knowledge marked by a seal of certainty, to define the norms of good science,7 both from an epistemic and ethical point of view, and thus to justify faith in science. Built on an epistemic and normative discourse, this paradigm attests to pure and eternal science within a context nevertheless marked by new alliances with industry and the nation state. Diverging from this pure and disinterested conception of science developed a science driven by the state (Bensaude-Vincent, 2009), particularly in the field of armament, which evolved into one in connection with industrial interests. This driven and biased science is, however, not thematised, whilst “pure science” is constituted as a norm of science. Henri Poincaré and Karl Popper thus consider that science deals with facts in a neutral and rational way, according to logical structures, which preserve its autonomy and epistemic purity (Poincaré, 1905; Popper, [1935] 1995). Max Weber and Robert K. Merton demonstrate that the evolution of science certainly responds to the dominant values of society at a given moment, but that the hard core of science remains characterised by neutrality and objectivity; therefore, the organisation of the scientific community depends on tacit values, yet in return, it guarantees (ethical and technical) norms necessary for and specific to science (Proctor, 1991; Lacey, 1999, 2005; Kitcher, 2011; Harding, 1986; Haraway, 1988; Longino, 1990; Kourany, 2010). Despite the fact that the norms of communalism, organised scepticism and impartiality have often been violated - even by famous scientists - the deviant does not question the system, but rather confirms it by the capacity of the institution to punish and exclude. In this perspective, the fraudster is a localised and individual case that still proves the normative performance of science.

6However, from the 1980s, the balance between public science, which was fundamental and impartial, and science determined by private interests was reversed in favour of the latter. Intellectual property evolves through the assertion of a system of patenting techno-scientific objects, such as genetically modified animals or plants, or software; agreements such as the Bayh-Dole Act (1980) in the United States strengthened links between industry and academia; public agencies started to evaluate and guide the strategies of teams of researchers; the internet and digital capabilities transformed the reach, temporality and power of research; new global subjects became vital - the environment, the climate, the web, the genome, finance, etc. - and brought about new questions in an economic and financial context characterised by the knowledge economy, the reduction of state powers in the face of the emergence of large transnational industrial groups and profound social changes in relation to the body, creation, death, the environment, family and work, which structure the cité par projet (Boltanski and Chiapello, 1999). As a result, these determinations within the field of research result in perverse effects: the privatisation of data or results for patent purposes, the abandonment of research that doesn’t correspond to profitable returns on investment, the realisation of clinical studies in countries with more flexible regulations and methodological bias linked to undeclared conflicts of interest (Benkimoun, 2010).

  • 8 Anthropologists have developed important criticisms on the cultural contextualisation of research ( (...)

7As a result, the links between science and values are reconfigured and reexamined by the transformations in research structures and practices, the different social, economic and political contexts in a globalised world, the magnitude of consequences in terms of the environment and nano-, bio-, info- and cogno-technologies (Bensaude-Vincent, 2009; Pestre, 2010). The dichotomy between fact and value is disputed (Putnam, 2002); objectivity no longer determines a simple methodological question, but must be analysed and questioned in the light of collective practices (Daston and Galison, 2007). Epistemologically and socially, our knowledge takes on historically determined values: it is contextualised.8 It participates in a knowledge-based economy in which it plays a crucial role as a driver of innovation (Vermeir, 2013). It embodies epistemic values, such as consistency, simplicity, impartiality, etc., but also, henceforth, performance, efficiency and acceleration, which are reflected in the evaluation indicators of research (Gingras, 2008). This new alliance between science and values is reflected in the facts: ethical committee evaluations - for example, in the biomedical fields - are not limited to ethical issues (consent, non-malfeasance, confidentiality, etc.) but indissociably blend scientific and ethical considerations. Some criticise it for the sake of science’s autonomy, whilst others justify it by challenging the demarcation between science and ethics (Angell et al., 2008).

8These transformations do not only affect academic professionals. Whilst European polls reflect citizens’ trust in science, this trust has tended to decline overall since 1992 (Eurobarometers, 2005, 2010, 2015): Europeans have more doubts about scientists and seem less interested in science and technology overall.9 Admittedly, they still demonstrate a certain optimism towards scientific progress and respect the medical, scientific and engineering professions; but they agree that scientists wield a potentially dangerous power and that scientists must be formally required to abide by ethical standards. In 2010, 62% believed that science and technology can “harm morality” (Special Eurobarometer 340, 2010, p. 57). What then is the source of research’s legitimacy? Who determines and applies it to govern and control science in society?

Researchers and citizens in the upheaval

  • 10 In biotechnology (Cambon-Thomsen and Rial-Sebbag, 2003; Rial-Sebbag, 2003; CambonThomsen et al, 200 (...)
  • 11 On risks and their relation to ethics in the field of technosciences, the literature is expansive. (...)

9Indeed, research has experienced transformations in its modes of institutional organisation, practices and professional identities (Kauppi, 2015; Despingres, Fiéloux and Luxereau, 1993; Hours and Selim, 2000), infrastructures and techno-scientific potentialities - in particular the bio-cogno-nanoinfosciences.10 These changes are rooted in a context marked by globalisation and operation in terms of projects or in the form of commands (Hache 2013, Jouvenet, 2013), by financing modes (Dasgupta and David, 1994), which have modified the temporality, objectives and scientific evaluation criteria by creating the “commodification” of research (Radder, 2010), but also by a new consideration of risks.11 All these changes put researchers and organisations in situations of paradoxical injunctions (Vinck, 2010), prisoner dilemmas (Drucker Godard et al, 2013; Mignot-Gérard, 2012; Bozeman, 2011; Sponem, 2013) or even moral panic (Hoonaard, 2001; Ogien, 2004), and have a profound impact on professions, identities and professional models (Barrier, 2011). Researchers must, at the same time, pursue excellence in publishing in order to be visible on the international academic level, promote rapprochement with industry in the context of innovative policies and secure funding for their laboratories; when they are also teachers, they must focus on the employability of students and invest locally; when they are women, they must often accept a recognition deficit from their peers or superiors but pursue the same goals. These objectives, however, are not all compatible at the same time in one person throughout an entire career: often the individual ends up choosing a particular path, but must then abandon the other criteria. The distribution of functions according to individuals seems statistically normal: few researchers publish prolifically, while the majority publishes little - probably because these people perform other tasks often less valued in the university - even if this choice is often solitary, without the institution recognising the impossibility of combining all these criteria (Drucker-Godard et al., 2013; Chatelain-Ponroy et al., 2013; ChatelainPonroy et al., 2017). In short, research is experiencing a silent crisis, often experienced as a form of malaise by those in the field (Doucet, 2010), the trivialisation of conflicts of interest (Friedman, 2002) and interrogation by citizens. The loyalty of professional stakeholders is divided between irreconcilable values and evaluation authorities.

  • 12 Among the recent affairs mediatised in France, of different natures, we can cite Domenique Rigaux, (...)
  • 13 The survey carried out by Etienne Vergès’ team (CERNI Grenoble), to our knowledge, has never been p (...)
  • 14 There are, for example, those that Jürgen Habermas defends in Erkenntnis und Interesse (1968): “A c (...)

10Widely publicised “affairs” or scandals (Judson, 2004; Oreskes and Conway, 2010; Proctor, 2008; Broad and Wade, [1982] 1987)12 crystallise these tensions but, as in Merton’s time, their meaning depends of the status of these deviances: are they marginal or general? Merton considers them marginal; as a result of studies on the ordinary behaviours of researchers (Mitroff, 1974; Martinson, Anderson and de Vries, 2005; Anderson, Martinson and De Vries, 2007; Galbraith, 2017; Fanelli, 2010). For a discussion of figures (Anderson et al, 2013; Brun-Wauthier and Vergès, Vial, 2011; Chevassus-au-Louis, 2016)13, we consider that these media cases instead mask a structural dimension of the tensions in research and behaviours that are quite widespread amongst all researchers. Practising research requires “arrangements” and a “grey area” that research ethics could then scrutinise and regulate to avoid crossing a line. In any case, the affairs and scandals that occupy the public space are not exceptions or accidents, but rather reveal individual and collective actions that are symptoms of internal tension in the structures and practices of contemporary research. In this context, one of the objectives of research ethics policies - at the level of research agencies, scientific publishers, states or Europe - is to restore citizens’ trust in researchers, since the trust pact with science is no longer selfevident in a context of acceleration, globalisation and the commodification of knowledge, marked by serious shortcomings. Therefore, behind stated ideals - democracy, progress, objectivity, rationality, utility, performance, impartiality, emancipation14 - the values of research risk becoming more a strategic variable determined by the theories of innovation and the knowledge economy (Foray, 2004; Diamond, 1996; Dasgupta and David, 1994. In terms of training in higher education: Bok, 2003; Texeira et al, 2004). Are research ethics then a spiritual complement that goes along with a business-as-usual approach, or do they indicate a growing awareness of the issues around science and societies (Vinck, 2007), which results in an “ethical turn” in research, assuming that it was not so - or less so - before?

Multiplying regulations

11In an attempt to guarantee research values that lie at the heart of the social pact, states, Europe, research organisations, funding agencies, scientific publishers and professional associations are behind the proliferation of regulations, laws, orders, decrees, charters and codes designed to frame scientific research on three complementary levels: the ethics of research professions, scientific integrity and research ethics. They are launching multiple actions to enact criteria supposed to guarantee research values. Thus, in France, bioethics laws are promulgated and revised regularly (n° 2011-814 of July 7, 2011. The next law to be revised following the bioethics Estates General should be published in 2019). Regulations apply to the use of human biological samples for research or the manipulation of genetically modified organisms in a confined environment. The European directive on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes was transposed into French law in 2013 (Decree 2013-118) and resulted in a law that modernised the legal status of animals in the Civil Code of February 17, 2015 and a National Charter of Ethics of Animal Experimentation. The Jardé Law and its decrees regulated research involving humans (French: RIPH), be they interventional or non-interventional (2012 - Decree n° 2016-1537). Law n° 2016-83 sets out the deontology, rights and obligations of public servants (April 2016); the CNRS has drafted a National Charter of Deontology in Research Professions (2015, revised in 2017); the government has drawn up a Research Code (2004, consolidated in August 2018); the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation has published a decree on doctoral training and the requirement for training in research ethics and scientific integrity (May 2016), following the Report on Scientific Integrity presented to the Secretary of State for Higher Education and Research and Higher Education, Thierry Mandon, by Pierre Corvol (June 2016); in March 2017, the French Office for Scientific Integrity was created (memorandum n° 2017-040 of March 15, 2017, published in the Official Bulletin n° 12 of March 23, 2017). Law n° 2016-1321 specifies the conditions of a digital republic (October 2016); law n° 2016-1691 on raising the alarm (known as the Sapin II Law) relative to transparency, anti-corruption and the modernisation of economic life (December 9, 2016) also applies in research institutions. Article L. 712-2 paragraph 10 of the Education Code, amended by the so-called Fioraso Law of July 22, 2013, stipulates that university presidents must develop programs for “equality between men and women”; the equality and citizenship law of January 27, 2017 requires each university to set up a dedicated program. Each university must therefore now have an equality officer, an environmental officer, a scientific integrity referent, a deontology referent, a data protection referent, etc.

  • 15 On the very process of regulation of research ethics like soft law (Tallacchini, 2009).
  • 16 Charter of Ethics and Deontology of the University of Geneva (2010), (...)

12Categorised under the generic category of ethics, scientific integrity and deontology - and even social responsibility - these initiatives accumulate regulations, procedures and stakeholders without guaranteeing consistency and harmonisation in the global system;15 they manifest either a certain vagueness or divergences in the interpretation of what ethics, integrity and deontology respectively are or should be. Thus, the CNRS and INSERM closely associate ethics with integrity: at the CNRS, the deontology charter of research professions also sets out criteria for scientific integrity. At INSERM, the Delegation for Scientific Integrity guides researchers in accordance with the principles of research deontology and scientific integrity. On the other hand, in the wake of the report “Renewing Public Trust” (2015), the June 26, 2016 law on deontology and the rights and obligations of public servants - (Article 9) dissociates integrity and deontology: the deontology referent must rather deliver advice - particularly in terms of links or conflicts of interest - in complete confidentiality, while according to the NOR circular letter: MENR1705751C n° 2017-040 of March 15, 2017, scientific integrity referents receive complaints regarding breaches of scientific integrity: in particular, plagiarism of other’s works or of oneself, the use of data without the authorisation of the author or without referencing (including one’s own work), the falsification of data, concealment of conflicts of interest; and they help process reports. The University of Geneva proposes an ethics and deontology charter based on four values (the search for truth, freedom of research, responsibility and respect for the individual), in which scientific integrity is subordinated.16 But deontology can also characterise operating rules specific to a discipline structured by an order or professional association. Some research disciplines have adopted an ethics charter or specific deontology code: in addition to doctors, this includes some archaeologists, psychologists (​ethics/​code/​ethics-code-2017.pdf), sociologists (code of the American Sociological Association), historians (​campus/​doc/​integrity/​) and anthropologists (ethics charter of the AAA -American Anthropological Association). These charters sparked debates and were sometimes abandoned (El Miri and Masson 2009; Stark, 2010); all the members of a discipline did not adhere to it. In short, France practises - albeit late - the regulatory stack that others have long criticised as misregulation, in the name of counterproductive moralisation practised by scientists themselves (in Canada, Trudel and Jean, 2010; Doucet, 2010; in the United States, Bonnet Robert, 2009).

The ambiguities of top-down ethics: soft law versus reflexivity

  • 17 Particularly in the continuation of the Belmont Report’s “principism” (NCPHSBBR 1978) and Beauchamp (...)
  • 18 The discussion model has deeply structured the creation and practice of ethical committees of all k (...)

13This more or less consistent and efficient regulatory system formed part of the continuity of a conception of ethics such as soft law, founded on principles (for example, the respect of autonomy and non-malfeasance)17 and the procedure of discussion (Apel, 1987; Habermas, [1983] 1986, [1991] 1992)18 in the 1980s, according to which ethics and law must strengthen one another.

14Faced with this regulatory interpretation, another way of “doing” ethics has developed based on a reflection around issues and values, put into the spotlight through what U. Beck has coined as reflexive modernity, that is, the ability of developed societies to assume the risks they generate themselves by raising awareness of the social, health, environmental and financial consequences at all levels (individuals, collectives, institutions, states) (Beck, [1986] 2001; Bourdin, 2003). We must then recognise that the problems are not characteristic of accidents or unpredictable effects, but the normal implications of researchers’ work. These two conceptions are juxtaposed today.

  • 19 These include: Committee for the Protection of Persons 2004 following the CCPPRB, 1988, Committee f (...)
  • 20 On the American history of technology assessment in the United States (1972-1995) (Bimber, 1996; Sa (...)

15On the one hand, ethics involves submitting protocols to ethical committees at the local, national, European or international level19 to ensure social acceptability by the implementation of so-called ELSA (Ethical, Legal, Societal Aspects), EHS (Environmental Health Safety) or “technological assessment” approaches to preserve compatibility between research and democracy20 (for example, with the Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choice, established in France in 1983, the same year as the National Advisory Ethics Committee for Life Sciences and Health, and in the United States, the release of the National Research Council report entitled Risk Assessment in the Federal Government: Managing the Process, or Red Book, which has since structured public decision-making far beyond America based on a conceptualisation and evaluation of problems as risks (Boudia, Demortain, 2014)) and to sign international declarations (for example, Declaration of Helsinki, 1964, amended regularly, Manila Declaration, 1981, No Secrets (Adult Safeguarding), 2000, Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, 1997, International Declaration on Human Genetic Data, 2003). Researchers then deploy an “ethical toolkit” to complete all of these assessment and authorisation steps. It essentially involves regulatory ethics, or soft law, based on a calculation of the cost-benefit and risk ratios, which tends to promote a purely instrumental conception of ethics among researchers. This comes through good practices, recommendations, expert opinions, standards, norms, charters, etc. The bureaucratic turn promotes ethics as a way of governing research by creating a new form of bureaucracy administered by committees but methodologically grounded by references in moral philosophy in terms of norms and expertise (Snyder, 1993; Cini, 2001; Dodds and Thomson, 2006; Eckenwiler and Cohn, 2007).

16On the other hand, ethics corresponds to reflexivity and social responsibility assumed by the bearers of research and internalised in research projects. Many researchers indeed “spontaneously” practise reflexivity or commitment to their profession and their research, which goes beyond a simple ethos, but reflects an ethical vision. In addition, Horizon 2020, the European Framework Program for Research and Technological Development (PCRD), requires candidates to practice self-assessment,21 which leads researchers to consider ethical issues from the design stage of the project, without the contours of these ethical issues being specified a priori. In the same vein, we have moved from social acceptability to a strong interaction between science and society: relations between science and society are therefore a priority of the H2020 plan (but could become secondary in the eighth PCRD). In France, the law of July 22, 2013 promoted “interactions between science and society”; Strategic Guidance Councils (COS) provide the link between society and research. In this perspective, participatory sciences have spread and been encouraged (Houllier and Merilhou-Goudard, 2016). Associations such as Citizen Science, or internal structures at university such as the Science Shop question the social issues of research. Some social science researchers even call for “institutional reflexivity” (Le Marec, 2010): after the era of criticism or activism for “science another way”, reflexivity calls forth the ability to constantly question the frameworks and principles of research such as freedom and autonomy, but also the responsibility of researchers and institutions. Accepting uncertainty, reflexivity refers to a cycle of surveys, experiences and recursive analyses, discussed in an intersubjective way, and the desire to explore and appropriate the margins of freedom, in the light of an awareness of the limits and challenges of research.

17In short, between these two styles, the nature and meaning of research ethics vary considerably, from regulatory “reductionism” aimed at assessing the respective weight of benefits and risks, to a reflection on society, democracy, truth and even wisdom (Kitcher, 2016), and anticipating issues for future generations. Between these two extremes, a whole range of practices offers the quest for ethical science through projects, evaluations, new research practices, reflections and criticisms at the individual, collective or institutional level, as a work in progress. This panoply undoubtedly indicates the need for rules, which also guarantee rights for researchers. However, a purely regulatory or procedural approach to ethics does not respond to the need to clarify, adapt and evolve ethics on a case-by-case basis in a complex and changing context.

18The terms and concepts also vary according to the languages and countries, their moral and legal traditions and regulatory styles (Vogel, 1986), which creates zones of untranslatability at the very moment when we seek to coordinate and integrate European research in the European Research Area (Cassin, 2004; Schummer, 2011). Ambiguity then strikes ethics, which designates a range of practices and theories that range from soft law, used as an instrument of governance, to reflexivity and theoretical reflection on the issues around research. Consequently, the connection between ethics, integrity and deontology does not reach a consensus for at least two reasons: firstly, nomenclature has recently evolved and conceptual distinctions are not yet stabilised, nor are the functions of the referents in scientific integrity and ethics and the rules and objectives of research ethics committees; secondly, the meaning of terms varies according to the scales of application, however, reflection on research takes place at several levels according to the discipline and country.

  • 22 On the logic of evaluation in European higher education (Erkkil and Kauppi, 2014).

19Another reason for this confusing situation is the political, cultural and economic issues of science: indeed, these research ethics initiatives take place in a broader context, which aims to ensure public values, that is, values to which public services in democracies must contribute (Bozeman, 2007). The OECD determines eight essential values common to all public organisations: impartiality, legality, integrity, transparency, efficiency, equality, responsibility and justice (OECD, 2000). In a very general way, values must provide a normative consensus on (a) the rights, advantages and prerogatives being allocated (or not) to citizens; (b) the obligations of citizens towards society, the state or one toward the other; (c) the principles on which governmental policies should be founded (OECD, 2009). Applied to research, this approach results in a tension at the level of both institutions and researchers: on the one hand, research must contribute to the public good through the production of knowledge, and on the other hand, it must be efficient in justifying investments in a highly competitive environment (Musselin, 2017; Chatelain-Ponroy et al, 2017; Gumport, 1993; Fochler, 2016; Lam, 2010; Texeira et al, 2004) 22The integrity-deontology-ethics triptych is then mobilised to harmonise these two injunctions which enter into tension and to guide the resolution of complex problems in a context completely in transformation, where the authority of the state, the internationalisation of scientific and student communities, the logic of excellence, but also new technologies, lead to strong restrictions. This triptych is required to operate in a more global regime of the production and regulation of science, characterised by new ways of controlling science and scientists by prophecies (van Lente, Rip, 1998) and great promises (Granjou, Louvel and Arpin, 2015; Aguiton, Bovet and Tocchetti, 2015).

Bottom-up ethics

20In addition to these institutional injunctions, collective and individual initiatives are also being organised to implement reflections, actions and programs in favour of research ethics, scientific integrity and deontology. Journals specialised in a specific discipline are devoting issues to this topic, or entire journals are devoted to ethics (Nanoethics, Studies of New and Emerging Technologies, Springer, International Journal of Bioethics and Ethics of Science, Eska; Hastings Center Report; IRB: Ethics and Human Research; French Journal of Applied Ethics, which dedicated a special edition to the ethics of science and technology; Poléthis, etc.). Researchers and citizens - sometimes brought together by associations like Citizen Science23 - question the values and practices of science. Researchers are implementing strategies to assume their responsibility by giving place and legitimacy to ethical questions in research (Benveniste, Selim, 2014). They are publishing manifestos, such as Slow Science, to slow down research or calling for a potentially different way of doing science (Stengers, 2013). These new ways of doing science are part of a global movement of citizen or participatory sciences:24 in the absence of a clear and shared definition, this movement is encouraged by the recommendations of the European Union for the sixth and seventh joint research and development plans with regard to Science with and for Society, or by the US Office for Science and Technology (Holdren, 2015).

21The principal feature of these ways of doing science surely consists in bringing together civil society and scientific research to dispute the argument of scientific authority (Stengers, 1997) a priori and to seek answers to the concrete questions that citizens ask. Beyond this generic characteristic, their forms and interpretations vary (Bonneuil and Joly, 2013: 93-108): they can include voluntary citizens solely for the collection and the analysis of the data, or from the outset for determining the orientations of the research and the interpretation of the results. All in all, citizen and/or participative science provide researchers with new motivations all the while resulting in new problematics: on one hand, it is supposed to guarantee more ethical research because it is more democratic, insofar as it involves citizens before, during and after research: science with and for society, by its very nature it embodies responsible and innovative research that takes into account societal implications. On the other hand, it raises new questions in terms of responsibility, gratification, sustainability and ambiguity in expectations: how do we take note of citizen participation in terms of publication, recognition and responsibility? How do we recognise volunteer work? How do we guarantee the enlightened and free involvement of sometimes vulnerable populations? Do researchers’ expectations really meet those of the citizens involved (Charvolin, 2010, 2011, 2013)? How do they reconfigure the divisions between public and private knowledge production? Who guarantees and defines the methods, issues and orientations? Who governs them (Jasanoff, 2003)? The demarcation between professionals and amateurs becomes less strict: even if the criterion of remuneration remains structuring in the definition of identities, the appearance of laypeople in science reconfigures the traditional criteria of the scientific author (Biagioli and Galison, 2003), recognition, centralisation and research governance, and what emerges is a new scientific practice and a more diffuse conception of scientific knowledge (Charvolin, 2010).

22In short, it is an understatement to say that research ethics internalises the complexity of research and our pluralistic societies: far from guiding researchers and citizens towards clear objectives or according to clearly identified consensual principles, it seems to create confusion by meeting both legitimate and urgent expectations without hindering performance. More radically, it questions science’s identity, but also its function in a democracy. It also raises a legitimate suspicion: is it not a new guarantee that reinforces the hold of political and economic stakeholders on science, and legitimising the practice of greenwashing in public research institutions, which is denounced when it comes to private companies?

  • 25 For an example studied in detail (Simoulin, 2012). For another example and a reflection on the tran (...)

23Science and technology studies (STS) in this respect shed light on these complexities by intervening in laboratory life in order to analyse the way in which scientists internalise and negotiate injunctions, restrictions and norms that are more or less implied by going against, shifting or bypassing the rules. It has reopened the debate on the powers and social functions of science, which Condorcet, Comte or Marx already thematised in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and on the social responsibility of scientists, which Michael Polanyi and John D. Bernal discuss in contradictory ways through a phenomenological approach to the commitments of researchers and from a Marxist approach in the 1930s-40s, respectively. Since the 1970s, STS have analysed the political anchoring of science (Latour and Woolgar, 1986; Pestre, 1995, 2007; Le Marec (ed.), 2010; Berthelot et al., 2005; Bonneuil, Joly, 2013) and criticised so-called scientific purity based on an epistemological demarcation “à la Popper”; they now analyse the critical and reflexive condition that is part of the requirement of scientificity itself. In particular, they develop an invisible and effective analysis of research infrastructures in determining practices,25 but also in redefining professional identities and motivations. The study of socio-technical controversies at work in terms of scientific choice has demonstrated the difficulty and necessity of making decisions in situations where there is a plurality of divergent values. It also shows how, under the guise of empowerment, ethics can become an instrument of governance (Hache, 2007; Aguiton, 2015; Musselin, 2013), moralism instead of ethics or morals (Hache and Latour, 2010). By promoting the moral responsibility of scientists through rules, codes and declarations, subject to an accusation of irresponsibility, research ethics, scientific integrity and deontology could put the onus and fault on individuals without sufficiently taking into account the situations and interactions that explain - without justifying them - certain behaviours, particularly with regard to publication (Gingras, 2014; Pontille and Torny, 2015, 2013; Boldrin and Levine, 2002). It is thus a question of reclaiming not only the institutionalisation and the proceduralisation of ethics, but also its necessary operability “beyond the rules” (Fassin, 2008) and this new ethical sensitivity which animates researchers as citizens when they question the common good, Gaia, animals, food, caregiving, future generations, etc.

24How does this tension between procedural ethics and reflexive ethics structure the field of research ethics? What do the institutionalisation of research ethics issues and the increasing visibility of democratic issues in research governance really aim to achieve? What do “local ethics” and new ethical sensitivities (Hache and Latour, 2010) that develop directly against practice teach us? Which values and ethical choices does research internalise, beyond or below normative and institutionalised ethics that imposes mandatory rules, such as informed consent or submission to ethical committees, based on models of autonomy and the ethics of discussion? How can we make these values and choices visible to both the researcher and the citizen, and prevent the proliferation of rules from reducing ethics to morality and legality (Ricœur, 1990: 200-201)?

25This dossier presents new elements by highlighting the specificity of ethical issues in scientific governance in light of social science research on research governance, the functioning of research ethics committees, conflicts of interest or the values of researchers, in epistemology and ethics on scientific pluralism, which seems to be a prerequisite for the establishment of democracy in science (Dupré 1993; Mitchell 2002; Longino and Waters, 2006: in particular the introduction, and Giere: 26-41; Ruphy, 2011; Coutellec, 2015). On the one hand, it sheds light on how the questions and problems of ethics, integrity and deontology emerge in the practices of researchers, but also in the evaluation of projects; through specific cases, it recaptures the necessary plurality of figures in research ethics according to the plurality of fields, stakeholders, methods of research and thus local initiatives. It emphasises the absence of a tight border between science and ethics. It questions the choice of values embedded in research projects (safety, performance, profitability, speed, etc.) in the face of other possibilities (delay, responsible commitment, ecology, solidarity, vulnerability, etc.). It helps to make explicit decisions and values that are often implicit before and during research: while the environment or the protection of vulnerable people are certainly important issues, they are not the only ones and they do not suffice in legitimising the ethical value of research. On the other hand, it also contributes to conceptually and contextually clarifying what research ethics means in practice. In this sense, it constitutes, through the specific experiences of the authors, a survey to frame ethics as a problem based on research experiences marked by an ethical need that is often difficult to integrate into the project (Dewey, [1938] 1967: 127-128). It thus makes it possible to survey the landscape, which identifies a multiplicity of figures in research ethics as a set of “problematic” situations. As a result, it considers research ethics a “problem”, instead of a solution to open a much-needed discussion today around research ethics.

The dossier articles

26The articles presented in this work analyse the tension between a seemingly consensual need for ethics by stakeholders, decision-makers or evaluators, and the challenges to the methods or solutions proposed by funding agencies or committees to determine what research ethics is. From distinct cases and situations, they converge towards affirming the absence of a demarcation between ethics and science, while underlining the difficulty of expressing and carrying out epistemically and ethically sound research. They attest to different ways of putting ethics into research on three levels: at the level of discourses that determine what ethics is or should be, in the concrete realisation of projects, and in the ethical evaluation of projects.

27At the level of discourses and institutional regulations, Léo Coutellec’s article analyses the conceptual confusion between ethics, integrity and responsibility and proposes to thematise ethics as a reflexive pivot on the values and the aims of research, situated between scientific integrity, which designates a normative approach, and social responsibility as a political approach. This conceptual distinction clarifies the legitimate expectations of research - particularly in terms of relevance, that is, appropriateness to the questions that society asks - and so to assume the necessary connection between ethics and science in democracy.

28Three articles confront the official injunctions to carry out ethical research given the reality of daily practices in the field. François Thoreau and Tsering McKenzie’s articles study two funded research projects from the ethical “need” expressed, on the one hand, by the sponsors, and on the other hand, by themselves as researchers in the humanities and social sciences involved in the realisation of the project. However, it happens that these two needs do not coincide and even enter into conflict: it is then a question for researchers of knowing how to assume responsibility, between the risk of only being used as a moral guarantee without relevance with respect to the true issues discovered while carrying out the project, and the temptation to “leave” the project as a last resort to remain consistent with the epistemic criteria of their discipline. Klaus Hoeyer, Aaro Tupasela and Malene Bøgehus Rasmussen’s article analyses the need for taking the mediations between science, law and society into account within the framework of two genetics projects. Certainly, the logic of open science promotes the sharing of data, the simplification of genetic material exchanges, the standardisation of ethical procedures through international collaborations and seems to standardise research. But in reality, its implementation varies according to the singularity of social contexts. Seizing the dynamic flow of samples and information makes it possible to understand the informal and often implicit intertwining of science and ethics. The study of circulations thus leads us to identify variations in researchers’ ethos according to whether it develops in areas of trust characterised by relations of giving and receiving, in places on the contrary marked by mistrust, which manifests as non-circulation, or in areas of “strategic ignorance” according to cultural and social contexts.

29Finally, two articles examine ethical evaluation practices in research ethics committees in Canada and Switzerland. In the first, Jean-Marc Larouche analyses the ethical framework of research in Canada over the past 20 years and reveals the risk of an ethicocracy that, paradoxically, would reduce ethics to a regulatory procedure by replacing researchers’ reflexivity. In the second, Solène Gouilhers and Loïc Riom study the operation of a research ethics committee in a Swiss canton from within to understand how a research institution produces and determines, with regard to casuistry, research ethics through an ethical project evaluation authority conceived within it. They underline the strong uncertainties on the contours and criteria of research ethics, as well as the effort of the committee to stabilise its decisions - and therefore also its legitimacy - in terms of research ethics.

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1 Pestre and Gingras criticise this simplistic dichotomy between pure/impure science before and after, promoted by, for example, Gibbons et al. (1994) and Etzkowitz, Webster and Healey (1998).

2 This is, for example, the vision defended by the report that served as a reference for redefining the policy of framework programs for research and development, P. Caracostas, U. Muldur,La Société, Ultime Frontière. Une vision européenne des politiques de recherche et d’innovation pour le XXIe siècle, report by the European Commission, Luxembourg, OPOCE, 1997.

3 In this article we will not develop the question of expertise, which constitutes a “decisive” element of research. (Jasanoff 1990; Granjou 2003; Roqueplo 1997).

4 Gilbert Hottois and Marie Gaille remind us that bioethics does not dissociate life from the environment (Hottois 2004; Gaille 2011; Van Rensselaer Potter 2011).


6 Accessed January 25, 2019, p. 6.

7 On good science as rationalisation (Weber, [1904-1905-1920], 2003, Science as a vocation(Wissenschaft als Beruf) [1917] 1990). On institutional values internalised by scientists (Merton, 1942, 1973). On the historical construction of pure and certain science, which served as a foundation for the advent of a republican society in the nineteenth century (Carnino, 2015).

8 Anthropologists have developed important criticisms on the cultural contextualisation of research (Stewart, 2017; Marshall, 1996; Markus and Fischer, [1986] 1999; Macklin, 1999; Lett, 1997). Research on HIV or Ebola has been particularly revealing.

9 This observation arises in the different Eurobarometers. For example: Eurobaromètre 55.2. Europeans, science and technology. Dec. 2001, p. 6-7.

10 In biotechnology (Cambon-Thomsen and Rial-Sebbag, 2003; Rial-Sebbag, 2003; CambonThomsen et al, 2005). In nanotechnology (Guchet, 2017; Laurent, 2017: in particular, ch. 5, Merz and Biniok, 2010).

11 On risks and their relation to ethics in the field of technosciences, the literature is expansive. Let us recall some major works (Beck, [1986] 2001; Dupuy, 2002; Fressoz, 2012). On the categorisation of risk, the construction of risk analysis and public decision-making since the 1980s (Boudia and Demortain, 2014).

12 Among the recent affairs mediatised in France, of different natures, we can cite Domenique Rigaux, Olivier Voinnet, Etienne Klein. Internationally, we can cite William Summerlin, John Darsee, Hwang Woo-Suk, Pattium Chiranjeevi, Diederik Stapel, Andrew Wakefield, Haruko Obakata and Anna Ahimastos. See:; in particular:

13 The survey carried out by Etienne Vergès’ team (CERNI Grenoble), to our knowledge, has never been published.

14 There are, for example, those that Jürgen Habermas defends in Erkenntnis und Interesse (1968): “A company owes its emancipation with regard to the external forces of nature to the processes of work, i.e. the production of technically useful knowledge…” (translated from the French translation. 1976, p. 89).

15 On the very process of regulation of research ethics like soft law (Tallacchini, 2009).

16 Charter of Ethics and Deontology of the University of Geneva (2010), (accessed January 25, 2019).

17 Particularly in the continuation of the Belmont Report’s “principism” (NCPHSBBR 1978) and Beauchamp and Childress’ important work (1979), which sets out four principles: respect for autonomy, non-malfeasance, benevolence and justice. Autonomy has notably been translated through consent procedures (Thouvenin, 1994; Moutel, 2003, p. 95; Ducournau, 2005).

18 The discussion model has deeply structured the creation and practice of ethical committees of all kinds. The strength of this ethical model undoubtedly consists of having associated principle U (universalisation) with foundation D (discussion), which is both a theoretical foundation and a practical foundation: “A norm can only be valid if all persons who may be affected agree (or could agree) as participants in a practical discussion on the validity of that norm.” Habermas, 1983, p. 86-87).

19 These include: Committee for the Protection of Persons 2004 following the CCPPRB, 1988, Committee for Animal Testing, ethics committees in hospitals, or at the national level - National Ethics Advisory Committee, 1983, National Institutes of Health, Institutional Review Board, National Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects, 1974 (Bonnet, Robert, 2009), Hastings Center, 1969; at the European level, the CDBI (Ad Hoc Committee of Experts on Bioethics, 1985, which became the Steering Committee on Bioethics in 1992), or the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies; at the level of UNESCO, International Bioethics Committee, 1993, CIGB, but also at the level of scientific publishers, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). For an analysis of the paradoxes of these ethical committees (Delfosse, 2004; Désiré, 2014; Piron, 1996; Desclaux, 2008).

20 On the American history of technology assessment in the United States (1972-1995) (Bimber, 1996; Salomon, 2006).


22 On the logic of evaluation in European higher education (Erkkil and Kauppi, 2014).


24 European Commission. (2013). SOCIENTIZE project to the European Commission’s Digital Science Unit. Green paper on Citizen Science for Europe: Towards a society of empowered citizens and enhanced research.

25 For an example studied in detail (Simoulin, 2012). For another example and a reflection on the transformations of research infrastructures (Star and Ruhleder, 2010).

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Sarah Carvallo

Professor of philosophy at the University of Franche-Comté, her work focuses on the intertwining of medicine and values; she has published The Perfect Man: The Medical Anthropology of Harvey, Riolan and Perrault (1628-1688) (Paris, 2017) and “Health as a Norm: The Epistemological Pluralism of Modern Medicine” (Gesnerus, June 2019). This collective issue was conceived within the framework of the Platform for Research Ethics at the University of Lyon in 2018; it is the result of collaborations between “involved” researchers from different disciplines and the support of the Science and Society Department.
Address: Logiques de l’Agir, UFR SLHS - Département de Philosophie, Université de Franche Comté, 30 rue Mégevand, FR-25030 Besançon cedex (France).
Email: sarah.carvallo[at]

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