NEC is a network where representatives from national ethics committees in Europe meet to discuss practices and issues related to research and ethics. Helene Ingierd, the General Director of The Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees, represented Norway 

Science and values in politics

Jean-Eric Parquet Director-General, DG Research & Innovation at the European Commission emphasized that research ethics should not be set aside when ensuring public health during a pandemic. Parquet also talked about how the Covid-19 pandemic shows the importance of science in times of crises and uncertainty. Science has never been more visible in politics, he claimed.

But it was also emphasized that politicians must clarify what values their decisions build upon. There is no one single scientific account, said David Archard, Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Decisions cannot be based on science alone. Politicians must explain the bases of their decisions and what priorities are made.

The experience from the UK showed the lack of ethics in the public, said Archard. The public debate has focused on numbers; such as allowing elderly and vulnerable groups to die now, if this means acquiring herd immunity and save more lives in the long run. This is pure utilitarianism, but the ethical considerations were not explicitly communicated by politicians.

Archard said another important lesson from the pandemic was the wide range of ethical questions being raised. The pandemic raise questions, not only about privacy and informed consent, but also about social justice and solidarity. For example, such issues are prominent in discussions concerning infection tracking apps.

This is not just a matter of privacy for app users, but weather choosing not to use an app will result in disadvantages. In this case we need greater debates about what justice really means and how it can be safeguarded, Archard said.

European solidarity and protection of fundamental rights

Christiane Woopen, head of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE), referred to EGE's recent statement on European solidarity and protection of fundamental rights in the Covid-19 pandemic.

Like Parquet, she emphasized that we must strengthen our values and that the greatest threat in this severe situation is the erosion of our rights and freedoms.

Many of the measures taken so far, such as the use of drones, immunity passports and infection tracking apps, are designed to control the spread, but in the long run they may be subject to function creep and can slip over to become part of our everyday lives in ways we really do not want.