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Commentary: Should There Be an Oath for Scientists?

Mathematical biologist Alison Hill argues that science would benefit from a professional oath.

ByAlison HillNOVA NextNOVA Next
Commentary: Should There Be an Oath for Scientists?

When it comes to scientific advances, 2016 was a pretty good year. Astrophysicists finally confirmed the existence of the elusive gravitational waves predicted by Einstein a century ago. A computer program managed to beat a world champion player at the complex board game Go. New vaccines against the AIDS and Zika viruses began clinical trials.

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But 2016 was also a year of considerable controversy and embarrassment for science. A surgeon-scientist was charged with manslaughter for faking data on stem cell treatments and administering them to patients. A scientific advisor to the EPA was accused of knowingly using faulty equipment to underreport methane emissions from oil fields. Over 600 scientific journal articles were retracted. As we begin 2017, how can we as scientists affirm our commitment to the fundamental principles upon which our profession stands?

My brother recently completed his training as a lawyer, and in trying to maintain my role as the supportive older sister, I trekked across the country to see him be “called to the bar.” Having completed more years of post-secondary education than I care to admit, I’ve sat through my fair share of commencement events—Latin orations, motivational speeches, and the recitation of name after mispronounced name—but I didn’t quite know what to expect this time. It was going to take place in a courtroom. Presided over by a judge. Can we take photos? No. Can I bring champagne? Definitely not.

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Newly minted veterinarians recite their field's professional oath.

In the end, the ceremony was a good mix of pomp and reflection. I managed to sneak a few photos, and the judge managed to slip in a reference to the graduates’ questionable tastes in craft beer. But the part that surprised me most was the final item on the agenda—the oath. The students of law formalized their entry into the legal profession by reciting a series of promises to uphold the intended role of their profession in society. To protect and defend their clients. Not to pervert the law to favor anyone. Not to promote frivolous suits. To act with civility and integrity. To ensure equal access to justice. To champion the rule of law.

It was pretty powerful, actually. Everyone has seen examples of lawyers gone bad, and while no oath could ever ensure that a young lawyer would never turn to the dark side, it seems like a pretty good way to steer them in the right direction. For all of the good-intentioned but over-worked practitioners who struggle to resist the corruption around them, it may serve as a good reminder of the greater good they serve.

Other Professions

Law is not the only field with a professional oath. For centuries, new physicians have recited some version of the “ Hippocratic oath ,” purportedly penned by the Greek “father of modern medicine” after whom it is named. Doctors-to-be promise to do no harm to their patients, to respect confidentiality and display sympathy, to prevent as well as treat disease, and to share knowledge and admit when they don’t have an answer. Professional engineers may also take an oath or pledge, promising to avoid poor workmanship and faulty materials, to serve the public good, to make best use of natural resources, and to uphold professional standards of conduct.

Physicians and engineers both serve the public directly—one through the medical care they provide, the other through the structures they design. Both professions have obvious ethical responsibilities to society. In contrast, the pursuit of science often takes place in sterile ivory towers and may seem far removed from the lives of ordinary people. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Eventually, science finds its applicability in the public sphere, and when it does, it better be correct. In many ways, science is the foundation for other professions that take an oath: Physicians need scientific knowledge to treat and prevent human disease, and engineers need scientific principles to design physical structures and materials. As a professional research scientist, it seems obvious to ask, “Why don’t scientists have a professional oath?”

Scientists certainly have other rituals. The gateway event to becoming a scientist is the thesis defense, whereby aspiring students must demonstrate that they conducted original research and have produced a new piece of knowledge. I’ve been to dozens of thesis defenses and observed senior professors shower their trainees in praise, share their embarrassing mishaps, and raise a glass with them, but never once have I seen them comment on the greater role of scientists in society or the codes of conduct by which new scientists should strive to live.

Why an Oath?

There are many reasons why a professional oath seems especially relevant to scientists. Unlike doctors, lawyers, and engineers, most scientists get few immediate rewards for their work. Thousands of scientists may spend thousands of hours working on a problem without ever producing a new drug or a new device, and an oath might be a nice reminder of the bigger picture role of scientists in society. The number of science graduates now far outnumbers the available academic positions, leading more and more PhD-level scientists to leave academia and work in other industries as data analysts, consultants, advisors, and more. In the absence of licensure, the roles and responsibilities of scientists in these positions may be clarified by a unifying professional statement.

But more importantly, scientists are not immune to the pull of the dark side. Eugenics, atomic bombs, and “enhanced interrogation” have all been propagated or supported by scientists. More recently, there have been other issues, different in scope and impact but still vexing: the replication crisis in science, about the manipulation of statistics to serve a particular agenda, and about outright faking of data. Scientists have grown more cut-throat as funding levels for research have stagnated. There is perhaps no better time than the present to remind scientists of their ethical and societal obligations as the creators, interpreters, and distributors of knowledge of the natural world.

A Proposal

What would a professional oath for scientists include? Here’s what I would pledge:

  • I will apply the scientific method to the pursuit of knowledge.
  • I will not distort facts to promote a particular ideological agenda or financial purpose.
  • I will put the pursuit of truth above personal gain.
  • I will seek to minimize my own and others’ biases in conducting and interpreting science.
  • I will take responsibility for the downstream social implications of my work.
  • I will give credit to others where it is due.
  • I will strive to minimize the harm done to humans, other animals, and the environment in the course of my research.
  • I will apply statistical rigor in designing my research and interpreting my findings.
  • I will participate in teaching others and disseminating scientific knowledge.
  • I will objectively evaluate other scientific work, even if it conflicts with my own.
  • I will welcome the introduction of new and unconventional ideas into my field.
  • I will respect the role that other disciplines play in informing public policy.

Other scientists have also advocated this idea. Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist Joseph Rotblat, the only scientist to leave the Manhattan Project based on ethical opposition, introduced his idea of a “ Hippocratic Oath for scientists ” during his 1995 prize acceptance speech. And in 2000, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conveyed a committee of experts to discuss and debate the utility of an oath for scientists.

These discussions tended to focus on preventing harm due to scientific research or its products, but I think an oath should be much broader, focusing on the main goal of science, which is to produce new knowledge. Philosopher Karl Popper described these more general moral responsibilities of the scientific profession in a paper read at a 1968 conference, and since then other scientists have continued to suggest their own oaths. Ravid and Wolozin’s short and sweet pledge is one of my favorites.

I won’t go as far as claiming that a professional oath will solve all the problems with science. Oaths certainly haven’t purged all unethical behavior from medicine, law, or engineering. Science faces extra challenges to implementing an effective oath, since it is not currently a regulated or licensed profession. There is no clear way to penalize scientists who break the oath. Some scientists may argue that they have no responsibilities toward society beyond producing knowledge. There will certainly be considerable debate about what to put into an oath. And perhaps this is the true utility of the pledge.

I may never see the day when freshly-minted scientists stand and solemnly recite a venerably-worded oath to uphold all that is good in what we do. Even so, the act of considering what such an oath might say will be a good opportunity for the field to come together to discuss what it means to be a scientist and the virtues of doing science right.

Photo credit: Semantocrat/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

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