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To Pledge or Not to Pledge: An Oath for Scientists?

By Irving Lerch

Irving Lerch (Alicia Chang/APS)
In his play, A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt puts the following words into Thomas More's mouth as More tries to explain to his wife his reasons for defying the King and thereby condemning himself: "When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his ownself in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then, he needn't hope to find himself again."

At the end of the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci, aside from providing his patron, the Duke of Milan, with dozens of innovative designs for machines of war, nonetheless suppressed his work on yet another invention, submarines, "on account of the evil nature of men, who would practice assassination at the bottom of the sea." It would appear that Leonardo apprehended a spectrum of horrors and drew a line over which he would not tread. But the line was his alone.

This stratagem would be codified in 1627 by Sir Francis Bacon in his Utopian tract, The New Atlantis, in which he reported a kind of scientific oath for scientist and technologists. He described an elaborate enterprise, very much like our own, consisting of travelers who collect the scientific output of various nations, scholars who catalog written reports, those who study and collect technologies, scientists who develop their own lines of inquiry, pedants who order the collected information into a kind of encyclopedia, and a council of the whole to decide on the disposition of this knowledge. The narrator then adds, "We have consultations, which of the inventions and experiences which we have discovered shall be published, and which not; and take all an oath of secrecy for the concealing of those which we think fit to keep secret; though some of those we do reveal sometimes to the State, and some not."

The quotes from Bacon and Bolt bracket our contemporary concerns. There is the ethical and moral dimension of the scientific enterprise contained within our own commitment to society and our higher ideals, and our strong impulse to protect society from the darker fruits of our aptitude - presumably those undertakings that demean the human condition. These impulses confront us with immediate problems. One era's morality will not do for all time. The sensibility of a 20th century author to a 16th century historical figure does not provide us with insights to guide us through the manifold layers of today's turbulent affairs. Nor does Francis Bacon's secretive society make sense in the global intellectual venture that defines contemporary science. If we have learned anything in the postwar era, it is that secrecy will not compel evil genius to remain ignorant, nor our colleagues to be virtuous.

The simple fact is that our society pays the bills and demands that its interests be considered. Physicists, engineers, architects and others whose labors directly affect the public welfare must demonstrate competence and accountability. Increasingly, basic and applied science connects with technology to accelerate profound social change. Science has prolonged our lives, taken us to the planets, given us an understanding of life and the stars, and has also made possible the greatest carnage in human history. The life sciences are now amassing the knowledge and wherewithal to fundamentally alter this planet's biological order. In short, science promises us eternal life or immediate extinction.

An Oath for Scientists

Some of the world's great scientists have long championed an oath for scientists, including Nobelists Albert Einstein, Joseph Rotblat, Abdus Salam, Maurice Wilkins and John Kendrew. But many more have resisted the call. The proponents were often motivated by their horror of the poisonous outcome of science applied to war and their sense that a prescription must be found to restrain the development of future terrors - even if it meant expurgating the range of scientific inquiry. But many other eminent scientists have reacted with equal distaste, remembering all too clearly the last American experiment with oaths for scholars which sought to cleanse academia of all vestiges of ideological socialism in the 1950s, with disastrous results.

Of course, there are important historical distinctions between the professions - where an act of swearing an oath constitutes a declaration of commitment to the public welfare - and the sciences, which have traditionally not directly served the public. Nonetheless, the numbers and varieties of ethical codes have proliferated as learned and professional communities sense public unease and depreciating confidence, usually measured in appropriations levels for research and declining student enrollments - despite the fact that polls consistently put scientists and science at the apex of public esteem.

An oath is a public declaration and therefore an element in public discourse. But for such a dialogue to be effective, the vocabulary and culture must provide a context within which an ongoing exchange is possible. The question is whether we can construct a global edifice acceptable and valid for all professions and sciences and the public. But even if we succeed in achieving a sound foundation on which a consensus can be built, can we find the key for guiding science in the name of social virtue without the risks inherent in conferring power over the conduct of science on an authoritarian meritocracy? The risk, of course, is that freedom in the conduct of science will be arbitrarily curtailed.

Different cultures and religions place different interpretations on prescriptions such as limiting one's work to socially and environmentally constructive ends. What is socially and environmentally constructive to one group is blatant exploitation or ineffective drivel to another. And behaviors based on one interpretation may be judged unproductive or contrary to public welfare in another time. To be effective, therefore, all such prescriptions must be subjected to intense rounds of negotiation and argument. There will have to be compromise arising from such consultations, and this process must be renewed continuously as circumstances and local mores change.

Ethics must be integrated into the education of technologists and scientists, and should include an examination of the impact that science and technology has had on society. There must also be an ongoing dialogue among and between scientists and the public, especially at the interface of the societal impacts of innovation and research. By "dialogue," I do not mean the one-sided effort of specialists to "educate" the public. While most lay people want to understand the canons of science and technology and the impact of future discoveries, they prefer that this discussion occur within the framework of a true exchange.

For example, the findings of science, in their purest form, are cultural expressions which contain intellectual, artistic and literary stimulation. The discoveries of extra-solar planets, the "freezing" of light in space, the exploration of the human genome - all these carry fascination and beauty. But cosmology and evolution threaten belief systems, and genetic engineering is accompanied by a long shadow of fear over our biological heritage and environment.

Another important element is that big science is, by and large, a state-funded enterprise, and legislatures worldwide have imposed an ever more elaborate filigree over public accountability. Even the very large private science and technology sector has been transformed by economics and the changing face of intellectual property rights law. This process has widened the political dimensions of the public face of science and is integral to any exchange between the public and scientists. In 1993, the US Congress passed the Government Performance and Results Act (GRPA), which requires federal agencies to compose strategic plans and annual performance evaluations. The public dialogue is becoming more complex.

The Devils Within

It is not only government that seeks accountability from scientists. A few writers, such as Daniel Sarewitz in his 1996 book, Frontiers of Illusion: Science, Technology, and the Politics of Progress, have argued that basic research can and should be focused on societal problems and that researchers should publicly anticipate the potential negative aspects of their work. As early as 1974, the UNESCO General Assembly declared, "Each Member State should strive to use scientific and technological knowledge for the enhancement of the cultural and material well-being of its citizens, and to further the United Nations ideals and objectives." The statement put national interest and the culture of science on the same platter, even though these undertakings occupy the antipodes of public policy.

We are besotted with devils, with contradictions, with warring impulses that defy resolution. We are awed with what the scientific intellect can achieve, yet wary of the impact on society as our power grows. We now suspect that we can alter the planet, destroy civilization, feed starving mankind, cure and create horrendous diseases. We seek the patronage, support and admiration of the public at large, but resist interference, controls and participation. We resent the uneducated fear of millions who question our intentions and competence, but are tongue-tied when we try to explain our capacities and motives. We savor the admiration and respect we are immersed in, yet are confused by the increasing alienation of the young who have turned away from science.

But the devils lay many traps for the unwary. John Wiens of Colorado State University, in a 1997 journal article, warned about the insidious results if scientists become too closely associated in their own and the public mind with the process and outcome of their work. "Perhaps the most pernicious and subtle effect of advocacy is on the interpretation of results. Even if a study is objectively framed and conscientiously designed and analyzed, the findings still must be placed in a context," Wiens wrote. "[Irving Langmuir] drew attention to what he called 'pathological science,' in which researchers unknowingly lose their objectivity in interpreting data that are near detection limits when much is riding on the results."

Objectivity in science is an absolute necessity. Free exchange assures objectivity by permitting critical evaluation and the continuous testing of results and conclusions. So if we are to develop and sustain open dialogue, it must contain a built-in barrier impermeable to the predilections, political sentiments and factual misunderstanding that characterize all open discussion. It requires a civility and an honesty of all participants rarely manifest in human affairs.

Irving Lerch is director of international scientific affairs for the American Physical Society.

This article was abstracted from a paper presented in a symposium of the same title at the Annual Meeting of AAAS in San Francisco on February 19, 2001. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APS.

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