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Should there be an Oath for Scientists and Engineers?


The rapid and enormous expansion of science and technology in the twentieth century has brought with it an increased awareness of the potential impact of the products of scientific discovery on society and the environment. One of the issues that has emerged from this attention to the consequences of scientific research is whether scientists and engineers should swear to an oath of ethical conduct. On September 27, 2000, the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility convened a meeting to consider whether there should be such an oath, and if so, what its content should be and how it should be implemented. A list of attendees appears at the end of this essay.

In recent years, individual scientists, engineers, and students as well as organized groups within the scientific community have advocated an oath. The Pugwash Council and its president, Joseph Rotblat, may be an oath’s most vocal supporters. “The time has come to formulate guidelines for the ethical conduct of scientists, perhaps in the form of a voluntary Hippocratic Oath,” urged Rotblat in his 1995 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. He also raised the idea of an oath at the 1999 World Science Conference in Budapest, Hungary, and has supported the efforts by Student Pugwash USA to spread its version of an oath. There are a number of other oaths for scientists and engineer that have also been suggested–AAAS research identified sixteen existing or proposed oaths for scientists and/or engineers. But not all scientists support the idea of an oath, believing that it would be a meaningless gesture or even used to constrain research.

The meeting in September 2000 brought together scientists and engineers on both sides of the issue to consider whether there should be an oath for scientists and engineers. The meeting began with a welcome from the Committee Chair, Irving Lerch, who posed a series of questions to the group. What is the purpose of an oath for scientists? Should the oath be informal or be backed with the force of law? Is there a general oath for basic and applied scientists-or does each community have its own distinct needs? Who legislates the oath and who administers it? Who and how will adherence be monitored? What issues will the oath(s) address? He urged the committee to consider the power of an oath and the profound and unique impact science can have on our world when considering the most important question of the meeting–Is an oath for scientists desirable or even necessary?

Role and Significance of the Hippocratic Oath-Lessons from Medicine

In considering whether there should be an oath for scientists and engineers, their role in other professions could offer valuable information about the possible effectiveness and limitations of such an oath. To provide context for the meeting’s discussion, Edmund Pellegrino, John Caroll Professor of Medicine and Medical Ethics at the Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center, shared with the Committee and other participants his reflections on the role of the Hippocratic Oath in medicine and its possible implications for an oath for scientists and engineers.

An oath, Pellegrino explained, is a public commitment to something beyond yourself. The Hippocratic Oath is a solemn commitment to act in a certain manner, and it is also the means by which doctors symbolically join the moral community of medicine. Although some precepts in the Oath are now variable, for example, only some versions include the prohibition against euthanasia, there remains some precepts that are constant–including the mandates to help the patient (benevolence) and to do no harm (nonmalfeasance). Pellegrino stated that while the Oath has obviously not stopped all unethical behavior on the part of doctors, he has personally witnessed the persistent positive impact of the Oath on both individual doctors and on the profession. Pellegrino concluded by offering his thoughts on the relevance of the Hippocratic oath to scientists and engineers. An oath can be “the magnetic core that can help to create a moral community,” and it can give “a sense of collective responsibility for the purposes of the profession.” If an oath is to be meaningful, he advised, focus on the unchangeable core of the scientific enterprise and on the character of the ideal scientist.

Existing/Proposed Oaths for Scientists and Engineers

AAAS research conducted in preparation for the meeting identified sixteen oaths proposed for use by scientists and/or engineers. Margot Iverson, an AAAS program assistant, described the characteristics of these oaths, comparing them on the basis of content and implementation.

The oaths were all written since 1900, with the majority of them originating after 1970. The earliest oaths were written by and for engineers. All but one of the oaths identified came from North America or Europe (the Buenos Aires Oath was the exception). Some of the oaths had been proposed by individuals, but twelve were sponsored by professional societies, student organizations, independent organizations (the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, for example), or academic institutions. An analysis of the content of the oaths identified three major premises that were shared by many of them. Some sort of responsibility for the societal consequences of research was included by over half the oaths, including such precepts as: working towards peace, a duty to future generations, and a commitment to the free exchange of information. The majority also discussed environmental responsibility and included precepts of professional conduct such as honesty and integrity. Some oaths also included a prohibition against work on weapons, an invocation of a deity, or a promise not be influenced by prejudices. Although the concept of individual responsibility is implicit in an oath, it was also explicitly stated in six of the oaths.

In collecting and identifying oaths for scientists and engineers, loyalty oaths, oaths addressing only specific ethical issues in scientific research, and oaths that dealt only with medical ethics were not included. In searching and identifying oaths, Iverson noted, it was initially expected that all the oaths would possess certain traditional characteristics of an oath, such as being sworn publicly, but in fact many of the oaths were not sworn in this way. Some oaths were sworn publicly in ceremonies, but others were signed as documents, and some, like the Student Pugwash USA Pledge, could be signed over the Internet. In these cases there is frequently no public declaration that an oath has been sworn. Since the public professing of an oath is one way in which it is invested with moral gravity, the question arises of whether it can remain a serious commitment when a traditional aspect of an oath is lost.

Iverson concluded by indicating that the research would be continued, and urged all present to share with her their knowledge of any additional oaths. It was suggested that an interesting question to pursue in future research was what the developers envisioned as the purpose of their oaths.

Pros and Cons of an Oath for Scientists and Engineers

The meeting’s first panel considered reasons why an oath should or should not be adopted by the scientific and engineering community. Panelists and committee members discussed what purposes an oath could serve, and whether it was the best method to use to meet these goals. Potential negative repercussions of an oath were also debated.

Neil Wollman, the campaign coordinator for the Graduation Pledge Alliance and a professor at Manchester College, shared his experiences working on a particular oath project, the Graduation Pledge Alliance. The Alliance seeks to raise the awareness of individuals and society to the societal and environmental consequences of their actions. Since the pledge was written in 1987, it has been sworn by between 25,000-70,000 graduating students at over 70 colleges and universities. The Pledge states: “I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organization for which I work.” In order to enhance the meaningfulness of the pledge, campus chapters sponsor many activities to reinforce its ethical message. These activities include seminar series, distributing resource materials, issuing pledge cards, and sending email reminders. The Graduation Pledge is sometimes sworn publicly as part of a graduation ceremony, and pledge cards, green ribbons, and certificates are distributed by many chapters in an effort to make the pledge a more public act. Wollman believes that the public aspect of the commitment contributes to the moral gravity of the pledge in a way that signing a paper could not. The Alliance hopes that the pledge will not only affect the behavior of individuals, causing them to reflect on the implications of their actions, but that as more people take it it will also have an effect on society as a whole. The conduct of those taking the pledge is not formally monitored, but a survey of alumni has indicated that the pledge has influenced the decisions and actions of at least some. The pledge can be taken by students from all disciplines, not only those in science and engineering.

The next panel member, Peter Blair, executive director of Sigma Xi, focused his remarks on the importance of an ongoing dialogue among scientists on ethical issues. If an oath served as a catalyst for fostering these debates, then he was supportive of the idea, but he opposed an oath that was not part of this larger dialogue. The rapid pace of scientific discovery in this century has led to ethical dilemmas that may require a new articulation of ethical norms, but Blair sees more of a need for intense discussion than for an oath. One of the problems with an oath for scientists and engineers is what to include–an effective oath would need to be specific enough to be meaningful yet general enough to include all scientists and situations. Blair noted that this delicate balance would be very difficult to achieve.

Karen Davis, a design engineer at Siemens Building Technologies, spoke in favor of an oath as part of a comprehensive education in ethics. She explained that an oath “is a vehicle for reaffirming one’s understanding of the importance of ethical behavior and related work.” Ethics must be incorporated into science education from the earliest years, and should address the societal and environmental impact of research in addition to addressing issues of research integrity. An oath would then serve as a reference point for scientists and engineers, and remind individuals of their personal moral obligations. As everyone would be held to the same ethical standards, it would also help create an environment where people would be accountable for inappropriate behavior. In Davis’s view, the major problem with an oath is that the decision to abide by it offers no tangible reward comparable to the monetary or professional rewards other types of behavior might offer.

A graduate student’s perspective on the idea of an oath was presented by Rebecca Derrig-Green, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Student Pugwash USA member. Prior to the meeting Derrig-Green had informally polled some of her peers, and she found considerable support for an oath among graduate students. Some students felt that honesty and accuracy were the most significant ethical concepts to include, while a similar number felt that societal and/or environmental concerns were important. Some people felt there was a contradiction between always taking into account the societal impact of research and pursuing one’s pure curiosity, and she noted that it could also be hard at times to predict the possible impact of one’s work. Nonetheless, Derrig-Green supported the idea of a voluntary oath, including provisions for the societal implications of research, and added that institutional infrastructure to reinforce and support any oath effort was crucial.

Panel moderator Lester Crawford led a discussion of the issues raised, and several participants expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of an oath, arguing that it would be unlikely to have a significant impact on individuals. Others thought an oath would only be self-serving, i.e., it would simply serve to make scientists “look good” without actually changing anyone’s behavior. Among the problems with an oath that were most vigorously discussed were whether scientists have a special obligation to society, the possible use of an oath to suppress research, and the reluctance of some scientists to swear to any oath. Some attendees objected to the idea that scientists have special obligations to society, stating that there is a distinction between the creation of knowledge and the use of knowledge, and that societal responsibilities should be kept separate from research. Because of experiences with loyalty oaths in the United States and in other nations, some members of the scientific community would also oppose any oath. With so much disagreement, one participant noted that it might be impossible for the scientific community to ever agree on the content of an oath.

Content and Implementation of an Oath

Meeting attendees found it difficult to discuss the case for or against an oath without specifying what the intended purpose, content, and method of implementation of a hypothetical oath would be. The meeting’s second panel, “Content and Implementation–Role of National and International Organizations,” focused on these specifics. Panel members from different types of organizations–governmental, international, and scientific–spoke on how the content of an oath might be decided on, what it should include, and who should promote it.

The first panelist, Gerald Fischbach, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at NIH, spoke about the establishment of the federal guidelines on stem cell research as an example of a different approach to handling ethical issues in research. Rather than attempting to compose an oath of general overarching principles that would regulate all of science, the stem cell guidelines were establish to address pragmatically a very specific issue. Fischbach described the method by which the NIH formulated the federal policy on embryonic stem cells, which included seeking legal opinions and input from the public, and expressed his satisfaction with the resulting guidelines while acknowledging some serious problems remained. In his opinion, this method of handling specific ethical situations in research is better than trying to use an oath to govern ethical behavior. Fischbach expressed concerns that an oath would be too restrictive and would impede research, and wondered if an oath could have been interpreted to preclude research using stem cells. Referring back to earlier discussion, he emphasized that scientific ethics should not concern the creation of knowledge but only the use of knowledge. A participant stressed that oath supporters do not believe that an oath of ethical conduct should replace federal guidelines.

Kathinka Evers, executive director of ICSU’s Standing Committee on Responsibility and Ethics in Science, spoke about her Committee’s consideration of how and whether to establish international guidelines regulating scientific research. Conceptually, Evers argued, guidelines come before an oath, since one is swearing to ethical principles already established. She sees the use of an oath to be more of a cultural preference than a necessary vehicle for reinforcing ethical behavior, and she discussed two problematic issues with an oath. In terms of enforcing an oath, it is unsatisfactory to have no consequences for breaching the oath, yet it would be difficult to penalize a scientist for some violations. In some situations, for example, it would be very hard to determine if someone had understood the societal implications of their research. In determining the substance of an oath, there is the already discussed problem with the wish to be both broad and specific. Nonetheless, Evers supported the idea of attempting to formulate an international oath because the attempt would be a fruitful and rewarding international project that would raise awareness of ethics, even if the most likely result would be dissension rather than agreement in numerous areas.

Georges Kutukdjian, senior director of the Division of the Ethics of Science and Technology at UNESCO, emphasized the special need to include scientists from developing countries in efforts to produce and implement an oath. In his opinion, they are in need even more than developed nations of an oath, and “it is extremely important on this issue to bring on board the scientists from the developing countries. They must participate in this debate and they must recognize themselves and their priorities in this debate.” For the oath to be effective, all scientists must have a sense of ownership, and he referred to the gradual process of appropriation throughout the world of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a good example of how this might be done. Kutukdjian also called for a comprehensive study of oaths and similar documents (including historical oaths no longer in use, oaths from other fields, and oaths from all parts of the world) to be undertaken. Regarding the content of an oath, he identified five content areas of critical importance to UNESCO: human dignity and human rights; environmental protection; safeguarding the heritage of future generations; intellectual honesty and integrity; and personal commitment toward responsibility and ethical accountability. Kutukdjian expressed hope that UNESCO, under the aegis of World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology, in cooperation with the ICSU Committee on Ethics, Euroscience, and the World Association of Universities, might work together with the AAAS committee on an oath project. He also noted that the term oath had sacred or feudal connotations, and suggested that “commitment” might be used instead.

Peter Reineker, a physicist at the University of Ulm, spoke about the recently released position statement by the European Physical Society (EPS) advocating an oath. In response to a widespread German misconduct scandal discovered in 1997, many German science societies have established codes and focused more on how to address ethical issues in scientific research. The EPS is now advocating an oath for physicists and for all scientists. The suggested oath states: “First, in all my scientific work I will be honest and I will not do anything which in my view is to the obvious detriment of the human race. Second, if later I find that my work is being used in my view to the detriment of the human race I will endeavor to nullify these developments.” Reineker hopes that international scientific institutions will take the EPS proposal very seriously.

Heather Stewart, a pledge program coordinator at Student Pugwash USA, discussed the Student Pugwash USA pledge as an example of how one organization has implemented an oath. The Student Pugwash USA pledge, established in 1995, states: “I promise to work for a better world, where science and technology are used in socially responsible ways. I will not use my education for any purpose intended to harm human beings or the environment. Throughout my career I will consider the ethical implications of my work before I take action. While the demands placed upon me may be great, I sign this declaration because I recognize that individual responsibility is the first step on the path to peace.” The pledge campaign is coordinated from the group’s national office, and is organized at the local level by university and high school chapters. The method by which the pledge is taken varies considerably from campus to campus (some with elaborate ceremonies and education programs, other without), and individuals can also take the oath privately online. Stewart stated that the goal of the pledge was to inspire awareness and create an atmosphere of social responsibility and individual responsibility. Over 5,000 individuals have sworn the pledge, which is not enforced.

Session discussion of the content of an oath highlighted the divide between attendees who felt that an oath should address the societal consequences of scientific research and those that felt the content should be limited to issues of professional conduct and research integrity. It was pointed out that oaths that did not endorse a particular set of guidelines but instead required individuals to consider their own conscience was one type of compromise. With regard to implementation, any successful effort to establish an oath for scientists and engineers would most likely need the support of at least one institution. Professional organizations, which some thought would be good candidates to organize an oath effort, would not target everyone, however, since only some scientists join societies. Medical oaths are organized on an institutional basis, and perhaps an oath for scientists should follow this route. The issue of whether oaths should be enforced was also debated, with some attendees observing that a purely aspirational oath would be meaningless. There was agreement, however, that any oath should be voluntary.

Findings, Recommendations and Next Steps

When opening this final session of the meeting, Lerch commented that the group seemed unable to identify a defining principle or purpose for an oath, but that there did seem to be support for the idea that the process of formulating an oath would be valuable. Such a process could help guide ethics education efforts and inform issues relating to the public perception of science and science policy. All attendees were supportive of Karen Davis’s suggestion that education was the key to increased ethical awareness among scientists, and Lerch also commented that this meeting had brought to the Committee’s attention the particular interest of younger scientists in an oath. There was a broadly shared consensus that a tolerant (but not patronizing) attitude should be taken towards those developing oaths, but that an oath posed very serious risks for the scientific community which could not be ignored.

The last hour of the meeting reflected discussion on many of the issues raised throughout the day. Each attendee was asked to identify the most important element of the day’s discussion, and among those elements identified were: the role of scientists as citizens in society; if special knowledge necessitates special obligations; and the conflict between the pursuit of knowledge and responsibility to society. Also among the elements raised were: the inspirational value of an oath; the necessity of identifying the goal or problem to be solved by an oath; the potential of an oath to allay public lack of trust in scientists; the need to ensure that all scientists contribute to an oath; and the critical importance of ethics education.

Meeting Summary Prepared by Margot Iverson, January 2001; revised April 2001


CSFR Members—Lester M. Crawford, Georgetown University; Christian Davenport, University of Maryland; David P. Forsythe, University of Nebraska, Lincoln; Nelson Kiang, Professor Emeritus, MIT & Harvard University; Marcel C. LaFollette, Independent Scholar; Irving Lerch, American Physical Society; Zafra Lerman, Columbia College, Chicago; Kate H. Murashige, Morrison & Foerster, LLP; Howard K. Schachman, University of California, Berkeley; Alan N. Schechter, National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health.

Speakers*–Peter D. Blair, Sigma Xi; Karen Davis, Siemens Building Technologies; Rebecca Derrig-Green, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Kathinka Evers, Standing Ctte. on Responsibility & Ethics in Science, International Council for Science; Gerald D. Fischbach, National Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke, National Institutes of Health; Margot Iverson, AAAS Program on Scientific Freedom, Responsibility & Law; Georges Kutukdjian, Division of Ethics of Science & Technology, UNESCO; Edmund D. Pellegrino, Georgetown University Medical Center; Peter Reineker, European Physical Society; Heather Stewart, Student Pugwash USA; Neil Wollman, Manchester College. (*Affiliations at the time of the meeting.)

AAAS Staff–Victoria Baxter, Audrey Chapman, Mark S. Frankel, Rachel Gray, Steve Hanson, Monica Hlavac, Margot Iverson, Debbie Runkle, Sage Russell, Sanyin Siang, Al Teich, Eric Wallace, Matt Zimmerman.

Press–Vid Mohan-Ram, Science’s Next Wave; Coimbra Sirica, AAAS News and Information.