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The first week of December is Ethics Week at the VUB. This year’s edition is the third. Ethics Week came into being as a way to help researchers think about the ethical consequences of their research in an informal way, and across the boundaries of disciplines and faculties. “This time, we are addressing the entire VUB community,” says John Pearson, responsible for the current campaign. This intention is reflected in a wide variety of session-topics, ranging from the issue of publication pressure to ethical issues concerning gene editing and artificial intelligence.
“There is indeed something in it for everyone,” says Pearson. “Last year, the topics were chosen to fit with the existing ethics committees at the VUB. This year, we worked more directly with researchers to determine the topics. We also consulted student associations such as the Studiekring Vrij Onderzoek (Study Circle for Free Research), and groups like Slow Science Belgium. It looks like this approach is bearing fruit: there are already more enrolments than last year.”
The Ethics Week is highlighted each year with a major communication campaign, but it is not the only initiative at the VUB that deals with the ethics of science and research. For a number of years, the VUB has also had a Legal & Ethics Office. John Pearson is Ethics and Research Integrity advisor at the Office. “We advise on research that is subject to ethical or legal conditions for it to continue. To this end, we organise committees such as the dual-use committee. When exporting technological or scientific applications, the dual-use committee must assess whether or not there is a danger that these will fall into the hands of foreign military groups or even terrorists.”
John Pearson is also responsible for the development of an Ethics Casebook: an interactive document with concrete dilemmas that researchers are likely to face, together with suggestions about how to respond to them. The aim of the dilemmas is to help make ethics less abstract, and more relevant to researchers’ daily work. “To come up with the dilemmas, I have partly drawn on my own experience and partly sought inspiration on the internet. I also made sure there are dilemmas that should be relevant to the different faculties. In future versions, I want to build more on dilemmas that our researchers have experienced themselves.” The Ethics Casebooks are currently being distributed among VUB lecturers.
Back to Ethics Week. It does not only consist of sessions - eight in total - but also includes an ethics menu at the student restaurant. Every day of the week, the restaurant will serve a different ‘ethically charged’ meal. The meals are chosen on the basis of the ethical challenges that arise from the ingredients and the way in which they have been collected and ended up on our plates. On Monday, for example, there will be a cod with pesto and bulgur salad: VUB Professor Yue Gao has written a text explaining the concerns about pollution that are associated with eating fish. Each day, a different member of the VUB community will give an opinion on the day’s menu.