Hippocratic Oath for scientists

Hippocratic Oath for scientists

It has been suggested that an ethical code of practice should be introduced for scientists that is similar to the Hippocratic Oath used in the medical profession. Proposals suggest that a suitable oath should encourage rigour, honesty and integrity among scientists, and ensure the minimisation and justification of any adverse effects their work may have on people, animals or the natural environment. In principle, such an oath would advance moral and ethical thinking and could increase public support for science.

Oath Proposals and their Advocates

A number of different oaths have been proposed by various prominent members of the scientific community. The idea was first suggested by Sir Joseph Rotblat, a nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. The concept has been met with criticism for varying reasons, with Ray Spier, Professor of Science and Engineering Ethics at the University of Surrey, UK, stating that "Oaths are not the way ahead".

It has been suggested that any suitable oath should be simple to remember and should be equally applicable to the work of physicists, biochemists, biologists and chemists. However, the debate has continued as to the potential use and value of a Hippocratic Oath for scientists.

Some of the propositions are outlined below.

Sir Joseph Rotblat

The idea of a Hippocratic Oath for scientists was first suggested by Sir Joseph Rotblat in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

He said:

"The time has come to formulate guidelines for the ethical conduct of scientists, perhaps in the form of a voluntary Hippocratic Oath”

Ethical conduct and moral responsibility in science was a cause Rotblat believed in passionately, having been the only scientist to have resigned from the Manhattan Project. Rotblat campaigned for a Hippocratic Oath for scientists for many years until his death in 2005.

Sir John Sulston

In 2001, in the scientific journal The Biochemical Journal, Nobel laureate Sir John Sulston proposed an oath so that scientists could 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."

Although Sulston stopped short of suggesting potential wording for an oath, his proposals reignited public and scientific debate of the topic.

Sir David King

In 2007, the UK government’s chief scientific advisor, Sir David King, laid out a ‘universal code of ethics' for researchers across the globe. The UK government has already adopted them. The seven principles of the code, intended to guide scientist's actions, are:

  • Act with skill and care in all scientific work. Maintain up to date skills and assist their development in others.
  • Take steps to prevent corrupt practices and professional misconduct. Declare conflicts of interest.
  • Be alert to the ways in which research derives from and affects the work of other people, and respect the rights and reputations of others.
  • Ensure that your work is lawful and justified.
  • Minimise and justify any adverse effect your work may have on people, animals and the natural environment.
  • Seek to discuss the issues that science raises for society. Listen to the aspirations and concerns of others.
  • Do not knowingly mislead, or allow others to be misled, about scientific matters. Present and review scientific evidence, theory or interpretation honestly and accurately.

Uptake within the Scientific Community

Some institutes are beginning to take the proposals seriously and in June 2008, graduating students at the University of Toronto, Canada, pledged to honour a scientific oath. This is the first well-documented case of scientists within the research community employing an oath-declared ethical code.

The students, graduating as Biomedical Scientists, declared the following oath at their graduation ceremony:

"I have entered the serious pursuit of new knowledge as a member of the community of graduate students at the University of Toronto.

I declare the following:

  • Pride: I solemnly declare my pride in belonging to the international community of research scholars.
  • Integrity: I promise never to allow financial gain, competitiveness, or ambition cloud my judgment in the conduct of ethical research and scholarship.
  • Pursuit: I will pursue knowledge and create knowledge for the greater good, but never to the detriment of colleagues, supervisors, research subjects or the international community of scholars of which I am now a member.

By pronouncing this Graduate Student Oath, I affirm my commitment to professional conduct and to abide by the principles of ethical conduct and research policies as set out by the University of Toronto.

It was publicised in international media that the students appeared to take the oath very seriously and it is hoped that further universities and institutes will begin to encourage their students to undertake a scientific oath.

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