Science body snubs 'impractical' ethics oath

March 2, 2001

The campaign for an oath to set ethical standards for scientists has suffered a setback after being rejected by one of science's most influential bodies, writes Steve Farrar.

The pledge - an equivalent of the Hippocratic oath - was debated during the American Association for the Advancement of Science's San Francisco meeting two weeks ago.

However, the AAAS's standing committee on scientific freedom and responsibility, which reports to the body's council, concluded it was neither practical nor useful.

Lester Crawford, the newly elected committee chairman, told The THES :

"We'll drop future pursuit of it -there's such tepid interest in it (in the wider scientific community)."

Sir Joseph Rotblat, who advocated the oath in his Nobel peace prize acceptance speech in 1995, admitted the reversal was a blow but was heartened by the grass-roots support from young scientists, especially in the United States where the group Student Pugwash USA has been campaigning for its own version.

They promise to consider the ethical implications of their work, to strive for a world "where science and technology are used in socially responsible ways" and not to use their education "for any purpose intended to harm human beings or the environment".

Sir Joseph said the oath had been signed by thousands of young scientists and there were moves to have it included as part of the degree ceremony in universities.

"I think a pledge is becoming more important because the impact of science, with the cloning of humans and genetic modification of food, is becoming so much more direct," he said.

Vivian Weil, director of the Centre for Study of Ethics in the Professions at the Illinois Institute of Technology, told the AAAS meeting that agreeing a common oath was a problem -she has collected 101 proposed or existing codes of ethics from groups of scientists and engineers worldwide.

Peter Blair, executive director of the Sigma Xi scientific research society, said: "I'm sceptical about the practicality of an oath that can be widely applied, but the spirit of the discussions that lead towards an oath may be more important than the oath itself."

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