"What is the purpose of an oath for scientists? To compel scientists to act ethically? To ensure we will not transform our species into a drooling monstrosity?" With these pointed questions, Irving Lerch, chair of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS's) Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, opened a meeting of European and American scientists who gathered in Washington, D.C., late last September to discuss whether or not scientific and engineering professionals should swear to an oath.

Over the course of the day-long meeting, the debate moved back and forth in both directions. And it became obvious that the proposition that scientists swear an oath of ethical behavior is a controversial and almost overwhelming concept.

Ethical Brake Pads

Some people feel that rapid technical and experimental advances in biomedical science have left behind the consideration of ethical implications of that research. Others claim that the conduct of some scientists (and the mystique surrounding many more) has created a more cautious and concerned public. Because scientists are often perceived as a freewheeling and cavalier community who are exempt from societal rules, many members of the public (many researchers, too ...) think that the conduct of scientists can best be kept in check by the implementation of oaths. But counter arguments suggest that such attempts to forge a "moral community" will prove fruitless because of the insular nature of scientific research and the absence of any real means of enforcing an oath, once sworn.

Like Mushrooms on a Damp Lawn

But nevertheless, "ethics codes are proliferating like mushrooms on a damp lawn," asserted Edmund Pellegrino, John Carroll professor of medicine and medical ethics at the Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University. "Ethics codes" are examples of a professional community "imposing" guidelines upon their profession, said Sanyin Siang, a program associate with AAAS's Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law program. Oaths, on the other hand, are "a personal commitment to the profession," she clarified. Deciding which is the better option--oath or code--was also debated extensively by the meeting participants.

Issues ...

The "biggest issue" with oaths, said Peter Blair, executive director of Sigma Xi, "is enforceability." With no legal and very little administrative backing, breaking an oath seldom results in any form of professional consequence or punishment. So "what good is [an oath] if it doesn't have any practical effect?" asked Pellegrino. "We have lots of physicians who have defrauded Medicare and Medicaid ... and they took the [Hippocratic] oath, so it didn't do any good," he illustrated.

Even so, many of those involved in the ethical arena believe oaths evoke moral behaviors that can only be of benefit to scientific and public societies. "First of all, [an oath] provides a concise codification of guidelines and compass points for behavior," said Pellegrino. Swearing to an oath is "an act of profession"--a public declaration of a commitment, he explained.

Pellegrino also related sentiments held by scientists who believe that because those who commit scientific fraud and research misconduct are in the minority, it is unnecessary to "change everything" for that small segment of the community.

But consideration of ethics should not begin with an oath, said Karen Davis, a design engineer for Siemens Building Technologies, who has been heavily involved in drawing up oath guidelines for engineers. She stressed that education on ethical issues should begin long before an oath is taken, and that students and scientists should not ritualistically swear to blanket statements concerning their behavior.

Sowing Your Oaths ... Online

However, even though many oaths can be sworn verbally, or through signatures, "the best way to gain more publicity and have more people take your oath, is over the Internet," said Margot Iverson, program assistant in the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law program at AAAS. The instantaneous swearing of an oath by hitting a key can make the process seem even more ritualistic than it is already made out to be.

Some organizations that do post oaths online--the Student Pugwash USA is one such example--have a hard time reconciling the confidentiality of their members with the traditional aspect of public revelation. "If I were to ask you for a list of all the people who've signed, would you make it available?" asked Mark S. Frankel, director of AAAS's Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law program, of Heather Stewart, pledge coordinator of Student Pugwash USA. "No. ... It's a very personal commitment, we leave it up to the individuals to share if they've signed it or not," she replied, somewhat counter-intuitively.

Lessons From Today and From the Past

Iverson identified more than a dozen scientific and engineering oaths and proposals that have been written in the last 30 years and that are consistent with characteristics of traditional oaths. "Seven [oaths] came from the United States, two from Canada, six from Europe and one from South America," illustrating the international interest that scientific oaths have generated, reflected Iverson. The supporters of these oaths declare that thousands of people around the world have signed or promised to fulfill their oath pledges, indicating that there is already movement among scientific groups to abide by ethical standards.

Perhaps the most well known professional pledge that is made public is the Hippocratic oath, sworn to by physicians as a "firm commitment of behavior," explained Pellegrino. But despite centuries of familiarity, the medical community cannot decide on key features of the historic vow. The content "is becoming more and more variable" between schools, he revealed. Consequently, Pellegrino believes that scientists can learn from the medical "use ... and misuse of [the Hippocratic oath] over 2500 years."

Just the Beginning ...

"In Europe we have really a problem of people going into science and engineering," commented Peter Reineker, a physicist at the University of Ulm, Germany, who represented the European Physical Society. "And one of the reasons is that the young people are very skeptical toward science and engineering in general." Reineker believes that it would be easier to appease those cynics by implementing a code rather than an oath.

Blair, too, remained "somewhat skeptical" that an oath for scientists and engineers would work. An oath "can't be a substitute for an on-going and vigorous debate about the issues," stated Blair. And he warned that if it is not properly done, "an oath can become a convenient cop-out."

"The primary purposes of the meeting were to generate broader awareness of the issues associated with an oath," explains Frankel. And while those issues were certainly debated, Lerch admitted that "we have no idea where this is going to take us" with regard to the subsequent actions, if any, of the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility and the role of AAAS. But Lerch closed the meeting enthusiastically: "It's been a stimulating and exhaustive discussion," he said.

The committee will return to the issue of oaths for scientists and engineers in a special symposium to be held at the AAAS annual meeting next February.

AAAS publishes Science 's Next Wave.