A ‘Hippocratic Oath’ for Scientists?

For centuries, young people entering the medical profession have taken the Hippocratic oath. Regardless of whether the 4th century B.C.E. Greek considered the father of medicine actually composed this code, and despite the fact that its provisions have been updated widely to reflect modern beliefs, the powerful, ancient ritual of publicly promising to observe a select community’s standards has long symbolized the intense professionalism that binds physicians. It also places the obligation to ethical behavior at the center of professional identity.

Nancy Jones, an American Association for the Advancement of Science/National Institutes of Health (NIH) Science Policy Fellow and a faculty member at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, goes further, arguing that an explicit statement of science’s core values would strengthen the fraying bonds of solidarity that once governed scientists of all generations and, as a result, would improve the treatment and prospects of the early-career scientists at the bottom of today’s scientific power pyramid and assure that they receive proper grounding in the ethical standards of scientific practice.

Making it explicit

Koocher’s project focuses on honesty in research and attribution. Jones’s extends to considering not only how people ought to do science but also how they ought to behave as citizens of the scientific community. In the article “A Code of Ethics for Life Scientists” published in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics, Jones proposes a “prototype” code that states both the “principles of the practice of science” and the “virtues of the scientist.” The code distills “the implicit code of ethics within science,” Jones told Science Careers in a telephone interview. She undertook to compare “the Hippocratic oath as a code with the codes of ethics of [scientific] professional organizations.”

“I was a member of the American Society for Cell Biology, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Heart Association–and none of them had codes of ethics” for researchers, she says. When she submitted her article to “some of the mainline journals,” they told her ” ‘that’s a specialty issue. That should be in some specialty journal.’ ” But most scientists, she says, “won’t get around to reading” those journals.

That’s why a serious, open, and general discussion of ethics is badly needed, Jones believes. Koocher and his colleagues also want a large number of scientists to give explicit thought to ethical problems. His project has invited people listed on NIH’s Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects database of funded investigators to take an online survey about their experiences dealing with ethical problems during their careers. If they wish, respondents can also give detailed, anonymous telephone interviews to “describe the incident and … tell us whether they did anything about it, why, and what happened,” Koocher says in a phone interview. Data analysis, which he expects by summer, will indicate “the scope [and] nature of the problem.” The team will then “take the data … and create a manual … that includes … anecdotes and strategies that worked for people” and also present “our recommendations for dealing with” the various issues that arise, Koocher says.

The team is surveying only “senior investigators” to avoid complications arising from the “clear power differential” so prominent in the lives of postdocs and other early-career researchers, he says. The survey covers scientists whose work involves doing research on human beings, ranging from patient/subjects to people who donate DNA or other materials–because “the biggest hazards are … where somebody draws implications for human participants,” Koocher notes. He has been pleased by the broad range of disciplines–from “dentists [to] biochemists”–represented by survey responses so far.

The ethics of community

The failure of senior scientists to observe the precepts of community, respect, and altruism, she believes, has deprived some young scientists of the opportunity to learn the rules and practices of ethical research and has undermined the situation of many early-career scientists in today’s opportunity-starved research scene. A crucial aspect of the principle of community, for example, is the “responsibility for training and accrediting future scientists in the practice of science. Students of science should be trained in both the knowledge and the philosophy of scientific practice.”

A crucial element of this training is the obligation of senior scientists to impart to their students and trainees, through example and precept, “the rules of the [scientific] culture”–especially those that assure integrity in research, Jones says. Many problems arise, she believes, when people coming into science “don’t understand the culture they’re entering.” So aspiring researchers need to be taught “the norms that we hold to.”

Another of the virtues requires teachers and mentors to “treat trainees with respect, regardless of the level of their formal education, encourage them, learn with them, share ideas honestly, and [give] them credit for their contributions [including] for inspiration of their ideas.” Jones believes that senior scientists have “lost a sense of accountability to the next generation insofar as all of our interests in them are self interests … so that our career can get advanced but not necessarily their career.”

Jones blames these developments on the fact that much of academic science has become “industrialized” and “commercialized,” by which she means that laboratories have become larger and face intense pressure to produce results in order to maintain or increase funding. Many are also experiencing rising influence from commercial interests. In many cases, she says, “we want to mass-produce people. We’ve lost the sense of accountability in relationships.” In previous times, she says, “if you were a trainee in someone’s lab, it was the mentor’s role to open doors for you. … We really have lost that.”

The traditional ethical principles of science require, she says, that senior scientists recognize “that you can’t have one Ph.D. reproduce 20 or 30 Ph.D.s in his lifetime [when] there aren’t enough places for them.” Young scientists must be trained for career opportunities that really exist. “While there’s a little bit of a focus on young investigators,” Jones says, “nobody’s doing a critical look at the [overall] system, which demands that a lot of people don’t make it to the top.”

“When you crunch the numbers,” you have to ask “how many more Ph.D.s would we need? Nobody’s calculated how would we ever support them and what careers would they have,” Jones says. “Arguing for more Ph.D.s with no intent to make room for them or to come up with some alternative strategies” for them therefore violates the principles of community, respect, and altruism, she says.

To “reinvigorate” the ethical basis of science, Jones states in her article, “appeals to the ideology of science and blind trust will no longer suffice.” Scientific organizations must “not only hold a collective norm but effectively enforce it.” She calls for scientific societies to develop codes and “design systems to enforce” them. Explicit discourse on these principles and virtues must be “part of the heart-and-soul practices of both laboratories and scientific communities.”

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