Campaign building for science oath

Ethical issues emerge on obligations to society

August 29, 1999|By KAREN BRANDON

SINCE ANCIENT TIMES, the Hippocratic oath and its prescription to doctors to "do no harm" has served as a sort of ethical compass for physicians. Scientists have no such equivalent, though their work increasingly takes them into matters with moral, ethical, humanitarian and social implications.

The idea of an oath for scientists, though hardly on the brink of becoming an international standard, has become the subject of a small campaign that signals a broader debate over the extent of scientists' obligations to society, and unease about how to contend with the unprecedented ethical issues emerging from science's extraordinary achievements.

This summer, Nobel Peace Prize winner Joseph Rotblat, 90, campaigned for a scientific oath or pledge -- raising the topic in Budapest, Hungary, during the World Conference on Science in June, and in San Diego before a July gathering of a student organization concerned with the ethical implications of science.

"A solemn oath, or pledge, taken when receiving a degree in science, would, at the least, have an important symbolic value, but also might generate awareness and stimulate thinking on the wider issues among young scientists," Rotblat told Student Pugwash USA, a group modeled after the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, the organization that, with Rotblat, won the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize.

"There should be explicit statements that ethical issues are an integral part of the work of scientists," said Rotblat, a physicist who resigned from the Manhattan Project developing the atomic bomb when Hitler's defeat was assured.

Such discussion might signal a change in the perspective of the scientific profession, which has tended to see itself as connected only to the work of science, not its uses for good or ill.

"Basic science was once considered values-free," said Margaret Somerville, founding director of the McGill University Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law in Montreal. "The basic premise was that you must not inhibit the finding of new knowledge. It was up to society to decide what they wanted to do with the knowledge."

But scientific findings, particularly in genetics, have raised legitimate public anxiety, largely because the pace of discovery exceeds society's capacity to reflect on its repercussions.

At a recent conference, Somerville said, "We had a roaring debate about whether it is OK to alter genes to enhance intelligence so the children born would be much more intelligent than their parents."

Although the discussion was theoretical, it was conducted as if scientists will, inevitably, make this step possible. But questions are raised about whether an oath offers anything meaningful. Nazi doctors, for instance, participated in Holocaust atrocities despite having sworn to uphold the Hippocratic oath.

"[An oath] wouldn't necessarily be adhered to, but it still would make a difference," said Robert Lifton, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at City University of New York and an author who has written books about the scientists who created the atomic bomb. "By raising that ethical issue, it would require a scientist to consider the moral dimensions of what he or she was entering or not entering."

Advocates say oaths represent a logical first step toward a broader emphasis on the role of ethics in scientific pursuit. But a recent graduate found ethics missing during his course of studies.

Consequences lacking

"We're just fed the science and technology," said Bob Murching, 23, who graduated from the Johns Hopkins University with a degree in bioengineering. "But the consequences of science and technology, that is lacking."

Murching is studying a new field that explores ways to program computers to model the way the brain functions. "I wonder what are some of the ethical consequences to be able to model decision-making," he said. "That could raise questions about our notions of free will and determinism, which right now I think we're very unprepared to answer. I mentioned this to professors, and they were completely unconcerned about that."

Murching said he decided to take a pledge being circulated by Student Pugwash USA, though he concluded that it didn't go far enough. "In its desire to be acceptable to everybody, it turns out to feel somewhat vague," he said. "I hope to have the courage to write my own pledge, something that is much more gutsy."

While the notion of a scientific oath is old, until recently it was discussed almost exclusively in the context of war. Leonardo da Vinci, though he offered many military inventions to patrons, is said to have suppressed his work on submarines because he feared that man's evil nature would lead to great destruction with such a weapon.

Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell co-authored a manifesto urging scientists to consider the ethical implications of nuclear weapons, a document that led to the first Pugwash Conference in 1957, named for the Nova Scotia village in which it was held.

Idea of oath ridiculed

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