“Questions, Not Answers, Are Better Suited to Start a Reflection on Ethical Issues”

Technology has immense power to shape our world in a variety of spheres, from communication to education, work, health, transportation, climate, politics, and security. New and innovative technologies with such gross potential for wide socio-cultural and economic impact (often referred to as “emerging technologies”) are thus often fraught with ethical questions – which range from concerns about privacy breaches to manipulation, fairness, and the exacerbation of power gaps and exploitation. Because they could affect every aspect of our lives, it is important to acknowledge and address these ethical questions right at the outset – as early in the process of technological design and implementation.

In this relatively nascent field of emerging technologies and ethics, TechEthos (Ethics for Technologies with High Socio-Economic Impact), a Horizon 2020-funded project, published a report on the ethical issues that need to be considered for three technology families: Digital eXtended Reality, including the techniques of visually eXtended Reality (XR) and the techniques of Natural Language Processing (NLP), neurotechnologies, and climate engineering, including Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Management (SRM).

Dr Laurynas Adomaitis, Tech Ethicist, CEA

In this Digital Salon interview, we speak with the lead author of the report, Dr Laurynas Adomaitis, Tech Ethics Researcher at Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique et aux Énergies Alternatives (CEA), on the ethical dilemmas inherent to emerging technologies, how researchers can effectively use the tools in the report, and the role for policymakers and funding organisations in promoting the integration of ethics into every stage of technology research.


Question: Are the core ethical dilemmas in emerging technologies fundamentally similar to ethical considerations inherent to all research? How are they different?

Laurynas Adomaitis: Emerging technologies are often based in research, so there definitely is overlap between the core dilemmas we discuss in research ethics. For example, while looking at climate engineering, we discovered that one point of contention was whether research into Solar Radiation Management (reflecting/refracting solar energy back into space) is ethically justified. One of the arguments against it is that researching such techniques presents the world with a “plan B”, which may distract from climate change mitigation efforts.

We also found a lot of issues with consent in XR (extended reality) and neurotech, which cuts across research ethics. For example, there are ethical concerns with so-called “deadbots” – chatbots constructed based on conversational data from deceased individuals. How is consent possible for an application that did not exist when the person was conscious? Likewise, in neurotech we must be aware of changing people’s mental states. For example, sometimes a treatment is required before consent can be given, but then can it be revoked by the patient? Or, if a BCI (brain-computer interface) changes a person’s mental states, can it also change how they feel about consent?


“Each technology family has many issues and at least one beastly challenge to conquer.”


Q: Which of the three technology families did you find particularly fraught with ethical issues? Why?

LA: The three technology families – XR, neurotech, and climate engineering – are at very different stages of development. Many applications in XR are already in production and available to the public; neurotech is starting in medical tests but is mainly based on future promise, whereas climate engineering is only beginning to be explored with huge issues on the horizon.

Each technology family has many issues and at least one beastly challenge to conquer. For climate engineering, it’s irreversibility – can we make irrevocable changes to the planet? For neurotech, it’s autonomy – how can we enhance cognitive abilities, while respecting independent and free thinking? For XR, it’s a set of particular issues, like nudging, manipulation, deep fakes, concerns about fairness, and others. I think it’s a wider array of issues for XR because it is already hitting the reality of implementation, where many practical problems arise. There are even skeptical researchers who think that virtual realities should not exist at all because of the moral corruption they may cause, especially with children. This fundamental issue still lingers spurring the need for empirical studies.


Q: What were some overarching ethical themes common to all three technology families?

LA: There are cross-cutting issues that relate to uncertainty, novelty, power, and justice. But the most important aspect that kept reappearing was the narratives about new technologies that are found in lay reactions to it.

We used a framework to elucidate this in the report that was developed in the DEEPEN (Deepening ethical engagement and participation in emerging Nanotechnologies) project over 10 years ago. It worked very well in the context of our ethical analysis. Many concerns were along the lines of five tropes of lay reactions to novelty: “Be careful what you wish for”, based on the motifs of exact desire and too big a success; “Messing with Nature”, based on the motifs of irreversibility and power; “Opening Pandora’s box”, based on the motifs of irreversibility and control; “Kept in the dark”, based on the motifs of alienation and powerlessness; and “The rich get richer, the poor get poorer”, based on the motifs of injustice and exploitation. Although these reactions are natural, and sometimes justified, we had to keep asking ourselves whether they are the most pressing ones. It’s still astonishing that the same narratives apply across times and technologies.


“There are cross-cutting issues that relate to uncertainty, novelty, power, and justice. But the most important aspect that kept reappearing was the narratives about new technologies that are found in lay reactions to it.”


Source: TechEthos Report on the Analysis of Ethical Issues


Q: How can the research community best implement the tools/findings in this report?

LA: The report is structured in a hierarchical way, starting with some core dilemmas that are the foundation of reasoning, then there are applications and, finally, values and principles. The value sections are the most important for researchers and practitioners. They cover the key considerations, and each value section ends with a set of questions. We wrote these questions with a researcher in mind. What should one consider when trying to explore, design, and implement the technology? What are the checks and balances with respect to the value in question? We intended these questions to be operationalisable so they offer the best value for implementation.


Q: How can policymakers better support the integration of “ethics by design” in emerging technologies?

LA: Technology research should be in step with ethical research on the technologies. The time difference between the development in tech and ethical or policy research creates a divide, where we have to work retroactively, and it’s very inefficient. Imagine if carbon-intensive technology and industry were developed alongside climate preservation from the very beginning. Of course, there have been philosophers and ethicists, like Hans Jonas, as early as the 1970s calling for ecological activism and responsibility for future generations. But they were mavericks and pioneers, working with passion but without support. We should try to open up these perspectives and take them seriously at the policy level when the technologies are emerging.


“Technology research should be in step with ethical research on the technologies. The time difference between the development in tech and ethical or policy research creates a divide, where we have to work retroactively, and it’s very inefficient.”


Q: What role can funding organisations play in centering ethics in emergent tech?

LA: It’s a difficult question to answer since causality is very uncertain in provoking ethical reflection. Ethical reflection is, as we like to call it, opaque. It’s not always transparent when it happens or why. What will actually cause people – researchers and industry alike – to stop and reflect? In our report, we avoided guidelines or directives that would offer “solutions”. Instead, we focused on questions that should be asked. Questions are better suited for starting a reflection on ethical issues. For example, if you’re building a language model, how will it deal with sensitive historical topics? How will it represent ideology? Will it have equal representation for different cultures and languages?

There is no “one way” to address these challenges, but the questions are important and researchers should at least be aware of them. If the standards for dealing with them are not clear yet, I would prefer to see each research project find their own way of tackling them. That will lead to more original approaches and, if a working consensus is found, standardisation. But the central role played by the funding bodies could be to guide the researchers into the relevant questions and start the reflection. We intended our report to provide some instruction on that.


You can read our summary of the TechEthos report by Dr Adomaitis on the analysis of ethical issues in Digital eXtended Reality, neurotechnologies, and climate engineering here, and the full report here. 

TechEthos is led by AIT Austrian Institute of Technology and will be carried out by a team of ten scientific institutions and six science engagement organisations from 13 European countries over a three-year period. ALLEA is a partner in the consortium of this project and will contribute to enhancing existing legal and ethical frameworks, ensuring that TechEthos outputs are in line with and may complement future updates to The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity.

ALLEA Welcomes Council Conclusions on Research Assessment and Open Science

ALLEA welcomes the adoption of the Conclusions on Research Assessment and Implementation of Open Science by the Council of the European Union on 10 June. See ALLEA’s full response here.

The Conclusions are in agreement with points that ALLEA has made over the years, in particular on the necessity of appropriately implementing and rewarding open science practices and the development of research assessment criteria that follow principles of excellence, research integrity and trustworthy science.

At the same time, ALLEA continues to stress that it matters how we open knowledge, as the push for Open Access publishing has also paved the way for various unethical publishing practices. The inappropriate use of journal- and publication-based metrics in funding, hiring and promotion decisions has been one of the obstacles in the transition to a more open science, and furthermore fails to recognize and reward the diverse set of competencies, activities, and outputs needed for our research ecosystem to flourish.

ALLEA therefore welcomes the principles set out in the Conclusion for designing novel approaches to research assessment, with particular weight on recognizing (1) the critical role for peer review in research assessment and (2) the importance of integrity and ethics in developing criteria focused on quality and impact. 

ALLEA underscores that the described reforms are urgently needed and require concerted efforts from the international academic community, supported by infrastructures for exchanging best practices as well as the necessary financial resources to implement these. 

Read ALLEA’s full response

ALLEA Signs Open Letter Calling for Finalising UK Association to Horizon Europe

An open letter to the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen signed by 25 European umbrella research and innovation organisations – including ALLEA – urges the European Commission and UK Government to work towards a successful UK association to Horizon Europe, “to safeguard this valuable and mutually beneficial R&I cooperation”.

The signatories call for moving forward the UK association to Horizon Europe “without further delay”:

“The EU knowledge community collectively welcomed the provision in Protocol I of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement for the UK to associate to Horizon Europe. The subsequent Q&A document from the European Commission provided us with the reassurance that UK entities could apply with EU partners for the first multi-beneficiary calls.

Based on the Protocol and those reassurances, for the past 10 months our universities, businesses and research institutions have been working with UK partners with a shared vision and in good faith that the UK would soon be a full associate member.

But the absence of a clear timeline for finalising UK association is now causing increasing concern. This lingering uncertainty risks endangering current and future plans for collaboration.

We are rapidly approaching a crunch point. With the first Horizon Europe grant agreements approaching and new calls soon to be launched, UK association must be finalised without further delay.”

The joint letter brings together over 1,000 universities and universities of applied sciences, 56 academies of science, 38 research performing and funding organisations, 33 rectors’ conferences, as well as 120 regional organisations.

The signatories underline that the EU research programme Horizon Europe’s success will hinge on its commitment to excellence and global outlook. “The only way to move forward from the Covid-19 pandemic is as a global community working together to drive research and innovation through collaboration.”

Read the letter

ALLEA Participates in Workshop on the Future of ERA Governance

On 2 September, ALLEA participated in a workshop on the future governance of the European Research Area (ERA) organised by the Permanent Representation of Slovenia to the EU in Brussels. The event is part of the programme of the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

The workshop addressed the ongoing policy discussions on the future framework of the ERA, the flagship policy of the European Commission to create a “single, borderless market for research, innovation and technology across the EU”.

ALLEA was represented by its Board member Maarten Prak (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, KNAW) and member of the Horizon Europe Working Group. The workshop was attended by a variety of stakeholders representing the Research and Innovation community.

The workshop addressed the options of an expanded policy framework of the ERA and the redesign of its multi-level governance, including in particular the reinforced involvement and dialogue of reasearch stakeholders with policymakers.


In 2020, the European Commission published a Communication to set up new priorities and to tackle new challenges for research in Europe. Its ambition is to revitalise the project and transform it to match generational changes and to draw on the lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic crisis.

The foundations for a new ERA are being laid with the Pact for Research and Innovation. On 16 July, the European Commission adopted its proposal for a Council Recommendation on “A Pact for Research and Innovation in Europe” to support the implementation of national European Research Area (ERA) policies.

ALLEA is contributing to these policy developments through its long-standing network of experts on research policy. In August 2020, ALLEA submitted a response to the European Commission’s public consultation on the future of the ERA. Our federation has supported and offered advice on the construction and shaping of the ERA since its beginnings.

ALLEA contributes to European Commission’s consultation on the European Research Area

ALLEA submitted a response to the European Commission’s public consultation on the future of the European Research Area (ERA). This initiative seeks to relaunch and revitalize the ERA and make it better able to address major challenges such as the green and digital transitions, or the COVID-19 crisis.

In its position, ALLEA supports continuous ambition “to broaden the ERA’s outreach and connectivity by promoting open science and research mobility within and beyond its borders, as well as access to research facilities and collections”.

“As innovation is not restricted to technological and economic growth but also concerns social and cultural adaption, it is critical to broaden the remit of the ERA and that Union programmes consider societal values, including fairness/equality, resilience/sustainability, diversity, openness, transparency and trustworthiness,” the contribution states.

The statement points out that “the core of the EU network remains mainly composed of EU-15 participants, with only a restricted number of institutions acting as hubs. Systematic efforts and specific mechanisms are required to encourage researchers across the career cycle and participants from EU-13 and Associated countries to actively shape the EU-wide networks across the ERA.”

The consultation was closed on 3 August and all stakeholder contributions are available here.

Read ALLEA’s contribution.