Published 29 June 2012 by Lou Woodley
Do scientists need an equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath to ensure ethical conduct?
Many scientific discoveries can have far-reaching consequences when they are applied as new technologies or are used to influence policy decisions. How much is it the responsibility of scientists to be concerned about, and involved with, the use of the knowledge that they contribute to society? Would asking scientists to swear to an equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath used in Medicine ensure they had an awareness of the ethical implications of their work, while reassuring the wider public about scientific integrity?
Dr Ehsan Ullah, a researcher at Quaid-e-Azam Medical College Bahawalpur, Pakistan posed this question at last year Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Here he elaborates as to why he thinks such an oath might be useful, as well as outlining which other scientists have considered a code of conduct as one way of ensuring the safe and ethical practicing of scientific research.
Last year, I asked Jean-Marie Lehn, the co-recipient of the 1987 Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1) whether or not there is need for an oath for scientists in the same way that medical doctors need to take the Hippocratic Oath. The Nobel Laureate denied the need for such oath. However, Nature published part of the dialogue between myself and Prof. Lehn in their Outlook supplement about the meeting (2).
"The first aim of scientific research is to increase knowledge for understanding. I do not see the need for an oath."
The background behind the question was very simple. If a medical doctor who deals with individual human lives takes the Hippocratic Oath at the time of graduation, then why shouldn’t a scientist do something similar, as he or she can potentially endanger the whole of mankind e.g. via weapons of mass destruction or bioterrorism? Many scientists would say that science is always innocent since it is concerned primarily with new knowledge and it is technology which translates that knowledge into the tools and devices which may adversely affect humans, animals or the environment. Jean Marie Lehn shares a similar view (2). Lehn says, “The first aim of scientific research is to increase knowledge for understanding. Knowledge is then available to mankind for use, namely to progress as well as to help prevent disease and suffering. Any knowledge can be misused. I do not see the need for an oath”. However, answering the question about nuclear weapons he says, “With respect to weapons and the like, if everybody were to take an oath and refuse to conduct research, then that would be OK”. There are other scholars, such as Professor Ray Spier, who opine that “Oaths are not the way forward” (3). I agree with Spier that the issue may not be wholly resolved by an oath and instead we need some more influential strategy to stop ‘unsafe science’ and its undesirable consequences.
"All scientists should declare their intention to cause no harm and to be wholly truthful in their public pronouncements."
There are others who advocate such a code of ethical practices for scientists. Sir Joseph Rotblat, a Nuclear Physicist and co-recipient of Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 (4) proposed during his Nobel Prize Ceremony (5) that the time has come to formulate guidelines for the ethical conduct of scientists, perhaps in the form of a voluntary Hippocratic Oath. This was the first time this suggestion was made. Another Nobel Laureate, Sir John Edward Sulston, has also urged that all scientists should declare their intention “to cause no harm and to be wholly truthful in their public pronouncements, and also to protect them from discrimination by employers who might prefer them to be economical with the truth" (6).
"To date, there is only one example of scientists subscribing to a general code of ethical conduct."
More recently, Sir David King, the former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government, has suggested a seven point ‘universal code of ethics’ for scientists (7). These include suggestions that the scientists should be alert about, minimize and justify any adverse effects on humans, animals and natural environment. They should discuss the issues that science raises for society by listening to the aspirations and concerns of others. They must not mislead or allow others to be misled, about scientific matters by presenting the scientific evidence, theory or interpretation honestly and accurately. They should themselves take steps to prevent corrupt practices and professional misconduct. However, the idea has yet to be taken up widely in scientific spheres. To date, there is only one example of scientists subscribing to a general code of ethical conduct, which is where the graduating biomedical students of the University of Toronto pledge to honour a scientific oath at the start of their research career (8).
I personally feel that such oath may not entirely solve the problem of ‘unsafe science’ but it will certainly help by promoting moral and ethical thinking among the scientists. It can potentially also foster public support for science. For these reasons, I strongly appeal to scientists around the globe to formulate a panel of reputed scientists with representatives from other organizations such as UNO, WHO and UNESCO who can devise an internationally acceptable and applicable oath or code of ethics which could then be enforced worldwide.
1. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1987. Available at: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1987/
2. Lehn JM. Rational Enthusiasm. Nature 478: S8 – S9. doi:10.1038/478S8a
3. An oath for scientists. BBC News. 30-03-2001. Retrieved on 21-06-2012.
4. The Nobel Peace Prize 1995. Available at: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1995/
5. Nobel Prize winner calls for ethics oath. Physics World. 19-12-1997. Retrieved on 21-06-2012.
6. John Sulston. Available at: http://www.sanger.ac.uk/about/people/biographies/jsulston.html
7. The Great Beyond: ‘Hippocratic Oath for scientists’. Nature. 12-09-2007. Retrieved on 20-06-2012
8. ‘Scientists get their own Hippocratic oath’. Globe and Mail. 20-06-2008. Retrieved on 20-06-2012