There are a number of ethical dimensions to all research that takes place within the European Union. Firstly, it needs to respond to actual societal needs and reflect the basic values of society (as expressed, for example, in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and in the European Convention on Human Rights). In addition, it must be conducted in a responsible manner.

Jeroen van den Hoven, chair of the EU’s expert group on RRI and Professor of Ethics and Technology at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Photo. VA (Public & Science)

Ethics pervades a research project in many different ways, from the moment someone comes up with the idea to when the resulting insights and knowledge are applied, for example, in a product, process or service. There are at least three main dimensions of ethics in research:

  • RRI (Responsible Research & Innovation)
    The research project should be designed to include societal actors, as well as respect and promote fundamental social values and needs, such as security, openness and equality. For this reason, research that is for military applications, reproductive cloning, genome modification, or creating embryos for research purposes, cannot receive research funding from the EU Framework Programme.
  • Research ethics
    To maintain research participants’ privacy and rights, special care needs to be taken e.g. with children, patients and other vulnerable people with regards to informed consent and protection from harm. The participants’ personal data and privacy must also be respected.
  • Research integrity 
    To ensure the reliability and independence of the research so that no misconduct or negligence calls the research results into question (the key guide to this is the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity).

In research funded by the EU, ethics is prioritised highly and therefore ethical evaluation is carried out from the conceptual stage of the project. Good ethical practice is a sign of excellence.

Step-by-step guide to Horizon 2020’s ethics appraisal procedure

1. Ethics self-assessment

Conducted prior to the application being submitted.
At this stage, researchers must clarify if a project involves research on human embryos, humans, human cells or tissues, personal data, animals, if it is dangerous to scientists or the environment, or if is to be performed in countries outside of the EU. Also included in the self-assessment is research into knowledge or products that have a dual purpose (which can be used for both good and malicious purposes), or that can be used by criminals or terrorists. There is a checklist to be completed for each of these research areas and this information should be included in the application. Reflection must also be given to whether the planned research may give rise to other ethical issues (such as in the case of research relating to neurobiology, human-machine interaction, nanotechnology, genetic improvement or androids).
Guidance on how to conduct your ethics self-assessment can be found here.

2. Ethics Assessment

Conducted by (a minimum of 4 independent) ethics experts prior to the start of the project.
If a project needs to undergo further review prior to receiving funding, an ethics assessment is conducted. This is a three stage process:

a) Are there any ethical issues (evident in the self-assessment)? If there are, the proposal is subject to step (b).

b) Does the proposal require ethical approval or an ethical assessment? If the latter, the proposal is subject to step (c).

c) A complete ethics assessment This involves an in-depth analysis of the proposal. Ethical requirements are included in the grant agreement in the form of deliverables, in an automatically generated work package called ‘ethics requirements’. Read more about implementing the results of an ethical review.

3. Ethics Check

Conducted by ethics experts during the implementation of the project.

This might involve researchers being invited to a meeting in Brussels or an on site visit. If a breach of ethical principles is suspected, the Commission can carry out an ethics audit.

The Horizon 2020 online manual contains detailed information about ethics and the three steps outlined above, together with links to relevant reference documents. It includes domain-specific guidance notes for research involving, for example, embryos, children and animals as well as for research related to the humanities and social science.

Calls for Proposals

Within the ”Science with and for society” work programme there are a number of calls for proposals involving ethics. Take a look at the list of SwafS Calls for Proposals.

Current and forthcoming calls for proposals are described in the Swafs Work Programme 2018-2020. Please note that this is a pre-publication of the new work programme.

In Horizon 2020, there are also many other calls in other programmes, which are particularly focused on aspects of RRI.

Three tips to help you integrate ethics into your project

  • Ensure you incorporate ethics and social expertise into your project. This type of expertise can provide an external perspective on your research and reduce the risk of you not taking different perspectives into account.
  • Use established guidelines for good research practice. Using them reduces the risk of irresponsible research and creates confidence in your research.
  • Do not hesitate to seek advice. The ethical decisions and advice that researchers are given can sometimes be difficult to understand. Don’t hesitate to ask for clarification and guidance from the Commission and other EU bodies.

Sources of additional advice and guidance

Research, Risk-Benefit Analyses and Ethical Issues
A guidance document for researchers complying with requests from the European Commission Ethics Reviews.

European textbook on ethics in research.
Designed for use in the training of science students, researchers and research ethics committee members throughout Europe and beyond.

RRI Toolkit/ethics – additional resources and guidance on putting ethics into practice.

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