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‘Hippocratic oath for scientists’

The BBC is reporting on a ‘universal code of ethics for scientists’ set out by the UK government’s chief scientific advisor. Sir David King hopes researchers across the globe will adopt his seven principles (you can listen to him on the BBC’s Radio 4) and the UK government has already adopted them. The BBC thinks this could be the scientific equivalent of medicine’s Hippocratic oath.

“Our social licence to operate as scientists needs to be founded on a continually renewed relationship of trust between scientists and society. The code has been developed in my office to help us meet this challenge,” says Sir David in a leaflet promoting the ‘Rigour, Respect, Responsibility’ code. This code has been mooted for some time (the Guardian wrote about it last year) and the issue of whether scientists should have a ‘code of ethics’ has been doing the round for even longer. The real question is whether this code is actually any use.

Which seems like a good opportunity to apply the ‘not test’: would anyone actually profess not to support any of these points? Here’s the code:

– Act with skill and care in all scientific work. Maintain up to date skills and assist their development in others.

– Take steps to prevent corrupt practices and professional misconduct. Declare conflicts of interest.

– Be alert to the ways in which research derives from and affects the work of other people, and respect the rights and reputations of others.

– Ensure that your work is lawful and justified.

– Minimise and justify any adverse effect your work may have on people, animals and the natural environment.

– Seek to discuss the issues that science raises for society. Listen to the aspirations and concerns of others.

– Do not knowingly mislead, or allow others to be misled, about scientific matters. Present and review scientific evidence, theory or interpretation honestly and accurately.


  1. Report this comment

    Russell Seitz said:

    _ Nullius Addictus Judicare…?_

    With the RS spinning alternative translations of its Horatian motto, little wonder neoclassical pseuds are beating at Nature’s doors.

    Would the august Editor kindly name the authority deciding by which god’s name this great and terrible Oath is to be sworn ?

  2. Report this comment

    Jim said:

    Mr. Seitz,

    Are you an authority yourself to suggest a better oath?

    As a scientist I’d rather live by an oath than be cast into fatalistic ambiguity.

  3. Report this comment

    On the shoulders of Giants said:

    An oath need not be sworn to a deity, Mr Seitz, as evidenced by the numerous oaths of allegiance (in modern times, sworn on the Constitution of the country in question). It would be a simple matter of choosing a particularly vaunted ideal or document to swear by. For instance, the scientific method, the Declaration of Human Rights, or (broadly) reason.

    I doubt that many graduates of the University of Toronto would take the oath if it mentioned God (both the secular nature of science and the inverse correlation between religious belief and one’s level of education support this). To many, in my opinion, it would do nothing more than denigrate the oath itself, abolishing all semblance of equality and universality, if it were mandatory to swear to just one of the Abrahamic gods, as opposed to a universal ideal- science.

    Both matters aside, I think it would be prudent to name it, not after its beneficiary (Sir David King), but after a particularly famous scientist, one whom stayed silent (initially) about the moral caveats of his work: J. Robert Oppenheimer.

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