Call for foreign scholars to take anti-terror oath

May 30, 2003

The Commons science and technology committee is keen to introduce a Hippocratic-style oath for scientists to aid the fight against terrorism.

At an evidence session on the scientific response to terrorism, the committee heard that the vetting scheme for foreign researchers was not working and many university researchers had yet to embrace the key issues.

After the session, committee chair Ian Gibson said it was likely the committee would recommend some sort of oath or ethical code of practice in its final report this summer.

Mike Crumpton of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said: "There is an absolute requirement for awareness to be introduced to all members of a laboratory from the lowest upwards. I don't think that is happening as cogently as it should."

The Foreign Office confirmed last month that it was reviewing its voluntary vetting scheme for universities, aimed at ensuring that countries developing weapons of mass destruction could not use UK universities to train scientists.

David Allen, registrar and secretary of Birmingham University, told the committee: "There is a general agreement that it is not working as intended."

He said that according to confidential information from the Foreign Office, in the past six months four institutes, which cannot be named, had referred more than 500 applications from foreign researchers, while comparable universities had referred none.

Mr Allen confirmed that if a researcher from Iraq applied to a UK university to work in a "dubious" area, their success would depend on the institute selected.

The Royal Society tentatively welcomed the idea of an ethical code of practice to increase awareness among researchers. But in its written submission to the inquiry it stressed the danger of limiting academic freedom and inflicting even greater damage on society.

Brian Eyre, chair of its standing committee on scientific aspects of international security, said: "We have serious doubts about how an ethical code could be implemented. It is getting a lot of discussion. But no one is coming up with obvious solutions."

Research Councils UK is sceptical about the idea. Its submission stated the councils would need to be persuaded that a Hippocratic-type oath for scientists would achieve anything useful.

"Such pledges are really effective only if there is some system for profession membership and a means of striking off those that infringe the code," it says.

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