Published: 2020-02-21 10:55 | Updated: 2020-06-18 11:27

Proactivity and freedom of speech discussed at ethics seminar

Photo of Thomas Bull giving a lecture during Ethics Council seminar.

International collaboration, lively debates and going above and beyond legal requirements—those were some examples of how Karolinska Institutet may work proactively with ethics discussed in the Ethics Council’s latest seminar. The event also featured a lecture by Justice Thomas Bull who voiced support for organizational cultures that encourage constructive criticism of their own operations.

Photo of Claes Frostell moderating the Ethics Council seminar panel conversation.
Claes Frostell as moderator during the Ethics Council's panel conversation. Photo: Stefan Zimmerman.

On Wednesday, KI’s Ethics Council held its second seminar since Claes Frostell was appointed chairman and KI’s scientific representative this fall. The council’s main goal is to ensure that a discussion about ethics takes place within KI. It is also an important piece of the puzzle in achieving KI’s objective in Strategy 2030 to have a proactive approach to ethics that pervades the entire operation.

“Ethics should not be confined to discussions behind closed doors,” Frostell said during the seminar. “Ethics must be spread to and permeate the entire organization at all levels, from students and educators to top researchers.”

Together with the other council members, Frostell had invited Thomas Bull of the Supreme Administrative Court to hold a lecture on the laws that govern freedom of speech and expression for public entities in Sweden.

Strong protection in Sweden

Photo of Thomas Bull giving a lecture during Ethics Council seminar.
Justice Thomas Bull of the Supreme Administrative Court. Photo: Stefan Zimmerman.

Bull, who was recently appointed chairman of the new national research misconduct board, noted that Sweden is at the forefront when it comes to protecting public employees’ right to share information with representatives of the media. Public employees can for example talk about classified information as long as it does not qualify for special secrecy provisions. And unlike in some American movies that give the impression that journalists can choose if they want to reveal their sources, Swedish journalists are bound by law to protect official sources who want to remain anonymous, he said.

The laws also prevent authorities from trying to find out who talked to the media as well as from taking punitive actions against informants. Official representatives are, however, entitled to address criticisms in public and give their point of view.

‘Fault finders’ should be encouraged

Progressive institutions can go above and beyond the requirements of the law by for example encouraging a culture that welcomes comments on potential errors and shortcomings, Bull said.

“It is about encouraging a mindset where constructive criticism of one’s own operation is not seen as a threat but rather as a natural part of a progressive organization,” Bull said.

In that spirit, KI today has an online incident reporting system where staff and students may report abnormalities, either with name or anonymously. The purpose is to make it easy for staff and students to report safety risks and suspected irregularities so these can be investigated and resolved.

Proactive approach

Photo of panel conversation during Ethics Council seminar.
President Ole Petter Ottersen during seminar's panel conversation. Photo: Stefan Zimmerman.

The seminar concluded with a panel conversation with Bull, members of the Ethics Council and President Ole Petter Ottersen on how KI approaches or could approach ethics in a proactive way.

Ottersen noted the importance of striving toward international agreements on ethics, so that researchers follow the same ethical principles regardless of which country they are operating in.

Katarina Cvek, a member of the council and coordinator of laboratory animal science at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, highlighted the ethical potential in fostering a culture of animal care that goes beyond the legal requirements.

Student representative Robert Meriruoho pushed for lively discussions at all levels within KI.

“What I hear quite often from my fellow students and doctoral students is that, instead of putting out fires and sounding the alarm, they want to focus more on prevention within the work environment, so that you work constantly with these questions and have time to react before the fire even starts,” Meriruoho said.

Ethics symposium about the gene scissor

At KI South, employees have taken to heart the message of proactivity. On September 3, the departments at KI’s southern campus will host an ethics symposium on the so-called gene scissor Crispr, which enables changing or replacing parts of DNA in humans.

“It is just the type of proactivity we need at KI,” Ottersen said. “What is impossible is if we as researchers have to wait for regulators to regulate research—then research may grind to a halt. Researchers need to take responsibility and think about the potential consequences of their work.”

    Want to learn more about ethics in research, then one of these seminars may be for you:

    • Swedish Research Council seminar on gene editing and ethics (March 20)
    • KI South ethics symposium on the gene scissor Crispr (September 3)
    • KI Ethics Council’s seminar on research on vulnerable groups (October/November)