Rotblat pushes for an ethics oath

November 19, 1999

Sir Joseph Rotblat's campaign for a Hippocratic oath for scientists is stirring up the international debate on science ethics.

The nuclear scientist and Nobel laureate has been contacted by scientists and science administrators from around the world following his speech to the World Conference on Science in Hungary five months ago.

He has also had informal talks with members of the Royal Society. Today he outlines his case in the journal Science.

Sir Joseph argues that scientists cannot shirk responsibility for their work and how it might be applied.

"Many scientists still cling to an academic mentality founded on precepts such as 'science should be done for its own sake', 'science is neutral' and 'science cannot be blamed for its misapplication'," he writes in Science.

"This amoral attitude is, in my opinion, actually immoral, because it eschews personal responsibility for the likely consequences of one's actions."

What is needed, Sir Joseph believes, is for scientists, like doctors, to take an oath at their graduation ceremonies that they should "do no harm".

"The time has come for universities to include science ethics in their curricula," he said.

While he acknowledges such a pledge would hardly be binding, its inclusion would place ethics high on the agenda and encourage future scientists to think hard before committing themselves to research whose impact could be detrimental to people or the environment.

Sir Joseph, a fellow of the Royal Society, urged national science academies to include ethical issues in their terms of reference. There was talk in Britain but "it takes time before things percolate through", he said.

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