Disagreement flares over “Hippocratic Oath” proposal for scientists

Can public trust in science be bolstered by an oath similar to the one taken by medical doctors? Stephen Fleischfresser reports.

Medical doctors are required to swear to do no harm. Should scientists be beholden to a similar pledge?

Medical doctors are required to swear to do no harm. Should scientists be beholden to a similar pledge?

ERproductions Ltd/Getty Images

In the wake of the recent resignation of José Baselga, the chief of the prestigious Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in the US, for unethically failing to disclose a host of close ties to health care companies, a recent paper in the journal Molecular Cell is timely.

Its authors, led by Kelsey Bettridge from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the US, put forward the idea of a Hippocratic oath specifically for scientists.

However, experts are divided on what form the oath should take – and even if it’s a good idea at all.

Hippocrates, the ‘father of medicine’, was a Greek physician from the fourth century BCE to whom a corpus of medical writings and theories have been attributed. The most famous of these is the oath that bears his name and that medical professionals still take today. While the earliest surviving version of the oath had physicians swearing to the Olympian gods Apollo and his offspring, the modern text reflects the contemporary ethical concerns of our complex biomedical age.

Bettridge, with Johns Hopkins colleagues Ashley Cook, Roy Ziegelstein, and Peter Espenshade, suggests that although science is respected in the US, the public nonetheless don’t completely trust scientists when it comes to ethics.

In contrast, medical professionals are both respected and seen as ethically trustworthy. The authors argue this is because ethical issues have long been considered an in-house issue within the sciences and that scientists don’t interact with the public in the same way as doctors.

The authors have a proposal to counter this ethical deficit.

“Medical doctors are well known to ponder the ethical implications of their practice through the Hippocratic Oath, which all medical students recite at some point in their training,” they write.

“Because of the pervasiveness of the Hippocratic Oath, and the general perception of medical doctors as ethical, we believe adoption of a similar oath for scientists in training will promote public trust in science.”

The authors suggest that researchers sign off on a number of statements, including:

I will practice and support a scientific process that is based on logic, intellectual rigour, personal integrity, and an uncompromising respect for truth;


I will never let the potential for personal recognition or advancement cause me to act in a way that violates the public trust in science or in me as a scientist.

But this is not the first such proposal.

The great philosopher of science Karl Popper, known most for his theory of falsificationism, first proposed the idea of a scientific oath in 1969 in response to the looming threats of nuclear and biological warfare. Through these threats the scientific community came to realise that even the purest of blue-sky research might be applied and yield morally questionable results. This naturally highlighted the ‘moral responsibility of the scientist’ and Popper suggested adapting the Hippocratic Oath for scientists to affirm this moral obligation.

In 1999, Sir Joseph Rotblat, the Polish-British physicist and winner of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize, famous for his work on nuclear fallout, suggested once again a Hippocratic Oath for scientists.

“Through its technological applications, science has become a dominant element in our lives,” he wrote.

Hippocrates wrote his famous oath in the fourth century BCE. With adjustments, it has been in use for almost 2500 years.

Hippocrates wrote his famous oath in the fourth century BCE. With adjustments, it has been in use for almost 2500 years.

PhilSigin/Getty Images

While science has dramatically improved human lives it also has posed for the first time an existential threat to the species. He concluded that scientists “can no longer claim that their work has nothing to do with the welfare of the individual or with state policies.”

Rotblat endorsed an oath formulated by the Student Pugwash Group as a way “to ensure that new entrants into the scientific profession are made aware of their social and moral responsibilities”.

And others have followed.

The Nobel Laureate Sir John Sulston advanced an oath in 2001 in the pages of the Biochemical Journal, and the writer Beryl Benderly surveyed the topic in 2007 in the pages of Science.

The journal once again addressed the issue when Karen Davis and her colleagues from the University of Toronto, Canada gave an account in 2008 of the graduate oath their students take, urging others in the life sciences to follow suit.

More recently Katya Ravid, Professor of Medicine, and Benjamin Wolozin, Professor of Pharmacology and Neurology, at Boston University in the US explained the pledge their medical PhD graduates take and offered their formulation for adoption by the wider life sciences.

Others, however, have been less impressed with the idea of an oath and have instead suggested various codes of conduct, seeing them as more thorough and rigorous.

David King, then chief scientific advisor to the British government, developed a universal ethical code for scientists of all stripes, covering “anyone whose work uses scientific methods, including social, natural, medical and veterinary sciences, engineering and mathematics”.

Nancy Jones of Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina, US, similarly proposed the use of a professional code of ethics for the life sciences, arguing that “codifying the basis of the social contract between science and society will sustain public trust in the scientific enterprise”.

Given the number of pages devoted to the topic over the years, one might be forgiven for being taken aback that there currently exists no universal oath or code of ethics for the scientific community.

This is because scientists disagree about the wording, need, utility and applicability of such ethical formulations.

Almost all proposals so far have focused on the life science or medicine, and some see this as the area most in need of ethical reform.

Astrophysicist Paul Davies from Arizona State University, and Cosmos columnist, agrees.

While an interesting concept, he thinks it unnecessary for certain sciences, such as physics, and sees it as most applicable to medicine.

“Viewed from the perspective of physical science,” he says, “I regard medical science as the least trustworthy and ethical. Medical science is replete with cherry-picking results, bias, sloppy work and outright fraud.

“Cancer research is especially awful, with an estimated 80% of papers containing irreproducible results. So much medical science is mired in hype, patent battles and funding scandals. In, say, particle physics, such antics would be unheard of.”

Australian Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty also has reservations, pointing out that science is not a monolithic entity to which an oath might universally be applied.

He points to the armed forces to highlight the problem: “A military doctor has a clear obligation to any wounded combatant, no matter what side they are on,” he says.“That is clearly not the case for a military scientist.”

While Doherty reserves judgement on the idea in general, he is not sold on the wording of the oath crafted by Bettridge and colleagues: "I think that it is basically useless".

Alan Finkel, Australia's Chief Scientist and another Cosmos columnist, is similarly unimpressed.

"I looked at the oath and found it uninspiring and repetitive," he says. "Compare it with the original Hippocratic Oath, which is an extraordinary clear aspirational pledge with several overlapping commitments.

"In summary, I think it is a great idea for PhD students irrespective of the discipline to recite an oath, but not necessarily this particular one."

Currently the debate around an oath centres primarily on the life sciences and medicine alone. With the advent of big data, artificial intelligence and increasingly powerful insights into the physical nature of the universe, perhaps soon more will see the discussion broaden to encompass researchers in an ever-widening array of fields.

Until then, we have to hope they have our best interests at heart.

Stephen fleischfresser.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Stephen Fleischfresser is a lecturer at the University of Melbourne's Trinity College and holds a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science.
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