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AAAS Committee Begins Discussion
on Possible Oath for Scientists
A committee of European and American scientists met at AAAS last week to discuss whether scientists should take a professional oath that might reassure the public about the uses to which science would be put, and make scientists more aware of the ethical implications of their work.
At a time when mad cow disease and dioxin scares have put scientists in Europe on the defensive, AAAS's Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility is responding to various proposals for an oath that are being discussed among scientists around the world. The question of whether there should be an oath for scientists and engineers will be further debated in February 2001, during a session at the AAAS Annual Meeting in San Francisco.
Noting that the public is increasingly aware of the power of science to both create and destroy life, Committee Chair Irving Lerch proposed that the group consider whether an oath is desirable or even necessary. Lerch, director of international affairs for the American Physical Society, asked, "Should an oath be enforced? Who would legislate it and who would administer it?"
Peter D. Blair, executive director of Sigma Xi, the honor society for scientists and engineers, argued that an oath could not be a substitute "for an ongoing and vigorous debate on the issues" that concern society. "In fact, an oath can be a convenient cop-out -- an invitation to complacency," Blair said. "If we agree on a pledge, it can be viewed only as a point of departure...It may be necessary, but it is far from sufficient for dealing with the issues we have to address."
There were disagreements among the participants about whether an oath would be effective, and some fears that it might serve to "shackle" scientists in their pursuit of new knowledge. In considering the question of working in the best interest of humanity, for example, how would scientists view using tissue from human embryos in stem cell research that promises relief from the effects of terrible neurological diseases?
The young scientists in the group, all members of Student Pugwash USA -- an organization that promotes a pledge to consider the social consequences of the work of scientists and engineers -- responded that such an issue would be determined by the scientist's own interpretation of what constitutes socially responsible research. They argued also for incorporating discussion of ethics into the undergraduate and graduate curricula. Committee member Howard K. Schachman, who had lived through efforts to exact loyalty oaths from American academics in the 1950s, said that the idea of an oath for scientists made him and many of his colleagues uncomfortable.
The European participants noted that scientists should address the European public's distrust of their profession, but wondered whether changes to educational systems and the development of ethical guidelines for scientists might not be more effective than an oath.
Kathinka Evers, executive director of the Standing Committee on Responsibility and Ethics in Science for the International Council for Science, warned that Europeans would probably respond cynically to scientists' declaring their honesty and their intention to work in the best interests of humanity.
Georges Kutukdjian, senior director of the Division of Ethics of Science and Technology for UNESCO, argued that there is an urgent need to develop a common statement for scientists, but in a way that would be the result of "a process of appropriation."
"It is extremely important to bring on board the scientists in developing countries and to bring them into the debate," said Kutukdjian. "An oath or guidelines can only have weight if scientists all over the world own that text." To give context to the discussion, medical ethicist Edmund D. Pellegrino spoke about the Hippocratic oath, which he called, "a profession or public declaration of commitment," one that brought physicians together as members of the same community and, ideally, guided them in the decisions they made. Pellegrino, professor of medical ethics at the Center for Clinical Ethics, Georgetown University Medical Center, said he tells young physicians that "you enter the profession when you raise your hand and proclaim that you are committing to a way of life other than self interest."
Margot Iverson, a program assistant with the AAAS Program on Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law, presented an analysis of 16 pledges for scientists and engineers, finding that most alluded to a heightened sense of social responsibility and honesty and integrity as important aspirations. Half the oaths mentioned an intention to avoid bias in professional endeavors, and many referred to a concern for protecting the environment. In no case were there penalties for not adhering to the oaths.
Question of Impact
Addressing the issue of whether scientists would adhere to an oath, Neil Wollman, professor of psychology at Manchester College in Indiana, said that his institution's experience with administering a pledge showed that "a lot of people followed through on it after they graduated."
"You can have a significant impact on society, if enough people start asking questions about the environment and making changes in the workplace," said Wollman, who had administered an informal survey to Manchester alumni on how they had been influenced by their promise "to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider" and "to try and improve these aspects of any organizations for which I work."
According to Mark S. Frankel, director of AAAS's Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program, the debate has only just begun.
"We don't know where this discussion will take us," said Frankel. "But AAAS has been asked to put the issue on the table, and that is what we are doing."
-- Coimbra Sirica