Feb. 27, 2007 Is it ethical for scientists to conduct or benefit from research in another country if that research would be unlawful, or not generally accepted, in their own country? In a policy paper in PLoS Medicine Loane Skene, Professor of Law at the University of Melbourne, Australia, presents a unique "barometer" for gauging the ethics of such research.
There are many reasons for scientists to undertake research abroad, says Professor Skene, including gaining access to more diverse research facilities and participants in research, or acquiring kudos, academic advancement, or commercial benefits from an enhanced international reputation. And they may also be able to undertake activities in another country that would not be permitted in their own country due to legal or ethical constraints.
"In most cases," says Professor Skene, "it will be lawful in their own country to undertake such activities overseas. It is rare for countries to have laws directly preventing their nationals doing research overseas that would not be permitted at home, or even bringing back the products of such research, unless they pose a safety risk, such as importing genetically manipulated organisms created overseas."
But would it be ethical? To address this question, the author has devised an "ethico-legal barometer" ("Skene's Barometer"; see figure) that gauges whether it would be ethical to do research abroad that is banned at home. The needle of the barometer moves through five zones--white, green, yellow, orange, and red. Research that falls in the red zone, such as research to develop chemical weapons in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, may be regarded as unethical and should be banned, says Professor Skene. "If scientists in the home country seem inclined to do "red zone" research in other countries, the home country can enact extraterritorial laws to prevent them doing so.
In the policy paper, the author illustrates her arguments by focusing on human embryonic stem cell research, and a project in which a group of international experts (called the Hinxton Group) agreed on a consensus statement setting out principles for transnational stem cell research.
Citation: Skene L (2007) Undertaking research in other countries: National ethico-legal barometers and international ethical consensus statements. PLoS Med 4(2): e10. (http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040010)
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