News overview

TNO trainees launch ethics tool for communication about science

7 February 2012

The ethics tool has been developed as part of a project performed by a group of TNO trainees for CATO-2 called ‘CCS, perception and ethics'. The central research question of this project is as follows: "How can CATO- 2 responsibly be more active in communication to create public awareness for CCS technology and its utility?"

The tool described on this page helps answer part of this question, by helping to guide scientists and scientific organizations in communicating in a responsible (ethical) way to the public.


Both the tool (questions) and the manual are available as downloads.


Authors of the tool: Merel Schelland, Daniël Worm, Sander van der Aa, Beste Eris, Jinxue Hu, Vincent Kamphuis, Roel Massink



Most of us want to do the right thing; we want to act justly. And although not always consciously, we have all sorts of intuitions about what is just in given situations. Our conscience is a valuable instrument in making the right decisions. Sometimes it is difficult to see what is right and wrong. Intuitions and values may conflict, or it may even be unclear what the relevant values or dilemmas are. In these situations we can turn to philosophy to structure our thoughts.


This tool will do exactly that: structure your thoughts. It will not tell you what to do, but it will help you in making the right decisions by drawing your attention to the relevant facts and inviting you to think about the relevant questions. The tool focusses on communication between scientists and non-scientists, in every form imaginable. You may use it when writing a blog, talking to a customer, or participating in a public debate. Whenever you are acting from your role as a scientist, particularly in interaction with "the public", this tool may provide some valuable insight and help you choose the right subject, form, tone and message.

Three phase process


The process guided by the tool consists of three phases:

1. Analysis. First, an analysis of the planned communication. In this analysis, the focus is on elements that could have ethical implications.

2. Act justly. Second, a deliberation of general values. Are you acting justly in this communication? Great philosophers ask you the questions that they would deem relevant. Can you come up with reasonable answers?

3. Keep promises. Third, a consideration of aspects of being a scientist. Are you behaving according to the contract you have with society? How do you prioritize goals and values?


We cannot overemphasize it: deciding on the right way of communicating with the public is ultimately something you should do yourself, in discussion with others, using your moral intuition. It is important to structure your thoughts in this process and come up with reasonable arguments. This tool will help you do that.

Step 1: Analysis – know what you are doing

The first part of our ethical consideration is a value-free analysis of the situation. We can only judge once we know the whole situation, so the first step is to get a clear picture. The sole purpose of this step is to really know what is happening in the considered communication, and thus the answers in this phase should be free of judgment.

However, our analysis will be input for the ethical assessment, therefore the questions in this part focus already on the aspects of the communication that might be relevant in an ethical sense. They anticipate questions about for instance possible (conflicts of) interests, transparency, objectivity and accessibility. We will now give a brief overview on how possible answers to these questions could lead to potential ethical issues, focusing on the four main themes of the questions in this part: getting to know one's message, audience, goal and methods.


Message: In formulation of the message, one has to decide to what extent information will be simplified. Giving the complete information will make it easier to be objective as a communicator. However, in most cases this will not be feasible.  But even if possible, not everyone may be able to understand or select the relevant information if no simplification or selection has been made. This would restrict the communication to the part of the audience that is able to understand the information.

Simplification also has potential ethical issues, like:

  • When choosing to simplify, objectivity will be lost, because choices will have to be made regarding the selection of information and details that will be left out.
  • Simplification can have the consequence of misinterpretation, and of not communicating all the important aspects, which raises the question: how to decide which aspects are important?

Audience Another essential element in science communication is the audience. From a democratic viewpoint, one may argue that everyone should have an equal opportunity of obtaining the information. However, this is not practical in general: communicating with everyone at the same time means dealing with different deficits in knowledge, experience and ability (or will) to participate, so any one message will be ineffective. A choice will have to be made at which audience(s) the communication will be directed. Traditionally, science communication has mostly focused on other scientists, peers, or people interested in science and actively seeking information, but:

While only targeting the interested and knowledgeable people is easier from a practical point of view, it means possibly leaving out people for whom the message is important or even essential.

Deciding for which people the message is important (enough) may not always be straightforward, and the communicator could be biased in this.


Goal A communicator needs to know clearly what his goal is. Here we state some questions and potential issues connected to communication goals.


(1) Which of several possible goals is desirable? There are various possible goals and motivations for communication. One can move from only informing (the communicator is ‘altruistic') to persuasion (the communicator is ‘selfish'), or somewhere in between. Persuasion needs not be the primary goal, but could be a secondary motivation. Simply informing has less potential for ethical problems than persuasion, for instance because persuasion as goal can be an incentive to frame or simplify a message in a certain biased way, which distorts the truth. But sometimes persuasion can be deemed necessary for the communicator, and then one needs to think about how to do this ethically. We will elaborate on this further on in the report. Other goals like gaining publicity, entertainment, negotiation, comforting, and getting information from the audience, may also play a role.

(2) Does one reveal one's goals or motivations? Note that while one's official goal might be transparent and open, there may be other implicit motivations that are hidden, or which are downplayed Hidden goals and motivations have more potential for ethical problems than open ones, because the audience may not know how to decode the message. Although from a practical point of view, it may not always be beneficial to the communicator to be completely open about all motivations, this is ethically questionable and could also lead to distrust from the audience when revealed.


Methods When choosing channels for communication, like newspapers, television, internet, public meetings, etc., there are several issues one has to take into account, like:

Does everyone in the intended audience have an equal opportunity to participate in or react to the communication?

Step 2: Act justly – be good

With the knowledge gathered in step 1, we move on to step  2, where we consider: is this communication right? The question ‘what is the right thing to do?' is at the heart of ethics. Various philosophers have found an answer to this question, and although their answers are not always compatible, there are at least five basic theories that comply with some element of our moral intuition and that have left their traces in the organization of our society, for instance in our judicial system.

Summarizing great philosophers always means leaving out (important) details. We cannot at all pretend to be complete here, and will have to refer elsewhere for more information (An interesting and accessible starting point is Michael J. Sandel's Justice), but will give just a very short introduction to these five theories:

  • Jeremy Bentham: ‘Maximize overall happiness, minimize overall pain'. Think about the consequences of your deeds: make sure they improve the balance between pleasure and pain.
  • John Stuart Mill: ‘Respect individual liberty, promote overall happiness'. Think about the consequences of your deeds: make sure they improve the balance between pleasure and pain.
  • Immanuel Kant: ‘Respect human dignity: treat people as ends in themselves, never use them only as a means. Act only according to a principle that you could want to be a universal law.' Your intention is what counts, the end does not justify the means.

Examples: do not lie, keep promises, do nothing that could not be a general principle.

Never use people; their dignity should always be also the goal of your deed.

  • Aristotle: ‘Develop your talents and enable others to develop theirs'. Practice and promote virtue in yourself and in others. Help others be good (critical) citizens.
  • John Rawls: ‘Secure equal basic liberties. Permit only social and economic inequalities that work to the advantage of the least well off.'

In the second part of the tool, we have formulated questions based on these five theories, focused on communication as a scientist to the public.

Step 3: Keep promises – Scientists have a contract with society

Various groups of people have tried to put flesh on the common notion of the scientist, and his obligation to society.  In 1942, the sociologist Robert K. Merton introduced the Mertonian norms of science as a description of the rules that (ideal) scientists obey. Associations of engineers, scientists and universities have formulated codes of conduct, and research organizations (like TNO) present their values in mission statements.  We list some of these values here (summarized):


Mertonian norms (CUDOS):

  • Communalism - Knowledge is the property of the scientific community, not of individual scientists.
  • Universalism - It is all about the content, personal traits are irrelevant.
  • Disinterestedness - Personal interest does not influence the actions of the scientist.
  • Organized skepticism - All ideas must be tested and are subject to rigorous, structured community scrutiny.


Distilled from mission statements Dutch research organizations (universities, TNO):

  • Improve the quality of life and society, promote prosperity and welfare (TuE, UL, TNO)
  • Enable progress, develop technical innovation for and with industry (TuD, TuE)
  • Address and solve the problems of society (UU, TuE)
  • Contribute to the competitiveness of companies (TNO)


Code of conduct of Dutch universities:

  • Be conscientious
  • Be reliable
  • Publish verifiable information; be open about sources
  • Be impartial
  • Be independent


UK universal ethical code for scientists:

  • Rigour
  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Respect for life, law, public good
  • Responsible communication: listening and informing


Based on these (and other) relevant values and rules, we have formulated questions in this third part of the tool that are related to communication. Immediately, it is clear that there are no simple solutions. Values may conflict and goals may be incompatible. In the end, it is the communicator who decides what he thinks is just. The considered general and contextual values should guide him, but they cannot give the ultimate answer.

This tool will not give you the answers, but it will certainly help you in steering your thoughts towards the important questions, highest values and relevant goals.

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7 February 2012

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