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Science and Public Responsibility

The Need for a Science Code of Conduct?

These evolving materials are provided to encourage continuing and new thought about science and its role in culture and, in particular, about the possible need of both scientists and others to clarify the ethical responsibilities inherent in scientific research. Your thoughts are welcome in the on-line forum area below.

Had I stood firm the scientists could have developed something like the doctor's Hippocratic Oath, a vow to use their knowledge exclusively for mankind's benefit. As things are, the best that can be hoped for is a race of inventive dwarfs who can be hired for any purpose

.... Bertold Brecht, Galileo, Scene 14

Is science made up of "a race of inventive dwarfs who can be hired for any purpose"?

Should scientists pay more attention to and accept more responsibility for the impacts of their work?

Should scientists and others more clearly distinguish among work done for the sake of knowledge, work done for the benefit of humanity, and work done for commercial gain?

Should there be some kind of ethical code of conduct for science?

"Perhaps the oldest and most persistently problematic ethical ambiguity in contemporary views of science relates to the question of the degree of responsibility that scientists have for the social consequences of their activities. Conceiving of science as the pursuit of "Truth", or of short-term human well-being, permits scientists a posture either of moral and ethical "neutrality" or of assumed virtue neither carefully thought through nor genuinely earned."

A Vision of Science (and Science Education) in the 21st Century



In the News (see also Supplement)

First posted by Rebecca Pisciotta and Paul Grobstein, 21 March 2008


umbrarchist's picture

Galileo and the 9/11 Affair

Do scientists have the right to say NOTHING?

What does Galileo have to do with September 11th, 2001?

Ever heard of the square cube law? Galileo figured that out. It has something to do with skyscrapers. It should be obvious that the bottom portion of a skyscraper must support more weight than the upper portion. You do not want to try to build a 100 story skyscraper and get to the 80th floor and say, "Uh oh, we didn't put enough steel in the basement!" Very bad form. Figuring out the cross sectional area of the steel neccessary to support the weight of all of the three dimensional volume of steel and concrete above has something to do with that hero of science.

But how is it that the nation that put men on the Moon 38 years after completing the Empire State Building has spent 13 years not telling us the tons of steel and tons of concrete on every level of a couple of skyscrapers supposedly destroyed by aircraft impacts and fires?

But then how is it that so many "scientists" and "engineers" have spent the same amount of time not asking?

Is must be annoying to know that science does not care about the careers of scientists.

yousuf gabriel's picture

Responsibility of the Scientists



The scientist may well be reminded that his attitude as regards the atomic-energy-for-peace, if he recommends it, is at present most unscientific. His own established facts in this respect negate his attitude, and his hopes in future protective discoveries in the field of atomic energy are most illusive and may not be materialized either at all or in time. To push over therefore this mankind in the atomic hell in the hope of one day finding protection against the radiations, and cure for radiation sickness is just like causing someone to drink deadly potion in the hope of discovering someday some effective antidote. There could not be a wrong greater ever done to mankind. Who more than the scientist himself knows the tricky, sub-atomic and beyond man's reach nature of the subject of atomic energy. What expectations then he has in this respect in near future. It is the most friendly, most timely and most sincere counsel to those scientists who today counsel that the adoption of atomic-energy-for-peace in the present state of the subject is safe. If the scientists shun the possibility of one day being called the ugly monsters who dragged the world into the atomic hell, and being sought as the cruel murderers not only of mankind but all life on earth by the misery-ridden mankind in the atomic age, then let them pause and ponder over the problem. And if they find a shared of truth in our warning then let them not grudge condescension to a suppliant in the name of humanity. If, however, they will defy the warning, then men have in the past defied the warnings and have met their doom. There happens to be nothing anew in it. But the misfortune is that the doom of whole mankind is mingled with that of the scientist and the fate of this world now is staked on his serenity. The situation demands moral courage and fortitude on the part of him on whose head lies at present the responsibility of the entire world. If he defies this warning he simply defies it by defying the basic tenets and the express dictates of science itself whose mouthpiece and spokesman he happens to be in the world today.

Allama Muhammad Yousuf Gabriel
Adara Afqar e Gabriel QA Street Nawababad Wah Cantt Distt Rawalpindi

jrieders's picture


So since I missed the first class, I will base this off the current discussion.

I was pretty excited when I saw this first topic and the comments above because only a few weeks before school started I got into a conversation about religion and science with two non-science major friends. As a biology major I surprised them by saying that our scientific system is not sufficient to accomplish many of the things we believe and hope it is capable of.

There are so many scientific breakthroughs that have permeated throughout society, their repercussions can be seen in every American home, but mostly people are slow to accept change and if they ever relished the convenience of some new technology it is soon forgotten.

On the other hand, I feel a large group of people that are part of social organizations (not just religious) by having more defined goals and ethical codes are more aware of its (the organization's) impact in their every day life, and perhaps more grateful and active. (not to say there isn't a lot of apathy within these social groups)

I think there might be several identifiable groups or goals, such as commercial, knowledge for knowledge, and progression, and each group might have their own set of ethics. As Ladd argues, there is no set of special ethics for professionals, but creating an explicit code to live by that non-professionals can relate to could be a way of unifying the common goal and giving more power behind the science.

RachelBrady's picture

Why do we need a code of ethics?

Why do we need a code of ethics?
As members of a profession, we have an important role in society as trusted experts. In this role, we have a duty to maintain the highest standards of professionalism in our work, while acting in the public interest.
Codes of ethics should set members apart from others, who may purport to provide similar services to the public, by establishing a set of principles by which to work. However, in order for the code to have merit and respect, it must contain procedures for monitoring the members' adherence and for disciplining those members who act in breach of the standards.
As I was pondering the need for ethics it dawned on me that, if there was truly a need for such a code, then the numerous scientific organizations would probably have their own code of ethics established.
I must confess that my original search on the topic was merely for the egocentric satisfaction of proving that there are codes of ethics which were not focused around the idea of “science for the betterment of mankind” (a dubious statement that irked me in our discussions). In this endeavor I happened to come across the website for The Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at ITT. It was not quite what I had been searching for, but it outlined the debate on the need for ethics much more eloquently than I could have. In addition, I came with an index of ethical codes, arranged alphabetically by organization.
I share with you the eye opening debate arguments and the links to the index of ethical codes, and selfishly point out that, while some ethical points call for consideration of societal needs, the codes are not centered on this ambiguous “betterment” of mankind:
Codes of ethics are controversial documents. Some writers have suggested that codes of professional ethics are pointless and unnecessary. Many others believe that codes are useful and important, but disagree about why. IIT's Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions is committed to the importance of codes of ethics, and we have undertaken the Online Ethics Codes Project in order to enhance access to a very wide variety of codes. Why are we so committed to this project?
It may help the user of these documents to understand something about the debate surrounding codes of ethics. At one end of the spectrum, John Ladd has argued that codes of ethics serve no good purpose whatever. Ladd argues that ethics should be open-ended and reflective, and that relying on a code of ethics is to confuse ethics with law. He further asserts that it is mistaken to assume that there is a special ethics for professionals which is separate from the ethics of ordinary human beings within a moral society. Professionals, he suggests, have no special rights or duties separate from their rights and duties as moral persons, and therefore codes of ethics are pointless and possibly pernicious.
A different sort of attack on the usefulness of codes of ethics comes from Heinz Luegenbiehl. Luegenbiehl acknowledges that codes of ethics do have some sociological value. Luegenbiehl writes,
The adoption of a code is significant for the professionalization of an occupational group, because it is one of the external hallmarks testifying to the claim that the group recognizes an obligation to society that transcends mere economic self-interest (p. 138).
But he believes that ultimately codes of ethics create moral problems rather than helping to resolve them. Luegenbiehl notes that practicing professionals rarely turn to their codes of ethics for guidance, and that the guidelines within the codes sometimes seem internally inconsistent. He also voices a concern similar to Ladd's -- namely, that implementation of a code of ethics may be in conflict with the moral autonomy we expect of individuals.
In response, Harris et al. argue that all three of Luegenbiehl's criticisms can be surmounted. They suggest that though most practicing professionals do not routinely consult their codes of ethics, it does not follow that they do not know about or care about the contents of their codes. Further, the fact that codes of ethics sometimes seem internally inconsistent can be addressed by understanding codes of ethics not as recipes for decision-making, but as expressions of ethical considerations to bear in mind. We should view them as an ethical framework rather than as specific solutions to problems.
Finally, the authors argue that moral autonomy is not really compromised by codes of ethics.
If a code's provision can be supported with good reasons, why should a profession not include an affirmation of those provisions as part of what it professes?...this does not preclude individual members from autonomously accepting those provisions and jointly committing themselves to their support. (p. 34)
Michael Davis makes a strong positive case for professional codes of ethics. Davis argues that codes of ethics should be understood as conventions between professionals. Davis writes,
The code is to protect each professional from certain pressures (for example, the pressure to cut corners to save money) by making it reasonably likely...that most other members of the profession will not take advantage of her good conduct. A code protects members of a profession from certain consequences of competition. A code is a solution to a coordination problem. (p. 154)
Davis goes on to suggest that having a code of ethics allows an engineer to object to pressure to produce substandard work not merely as an ordinary moral agent, but as a professional. Engineers (or doctors, or clergy, etc.) can say "As a professional, I cannot ethically put business concerns ahead of professional ethics."
Davis give four reasons why professionals should support their profession’s code:
First…supporting it will help protect them and those they care about from being injured by what other engineers do. Second, supporting the code will also help assure each engineer a working environment in which it will be easier than it would otherwise be to resist pressure to do much that the engineers would rather not do. Third, engineers should support their profession's code because supporting it helps make their profession a practice of which they need not feel…embarrassment, shame, or guilt. And fourth, one has an obligation of fairness to do his part…in generating these benefits for all engineers. (p. 166)
Harris et al. summarize Stephen Unger's analysis of the possible functions of a code of ethics:
First, it can serve as a collective recognition by members of a profession of its responsibilities. Second, it can help create an environment in which ethical behavior is the norm. Third, it can serve as a guide or reminder in specific situations…Fourth, the process of developing and modifying a code of ethics can be valuable for a profession. Fifth, a code can serve as an educational tool, providing a focal point for discussion in classes and professional meetings. Finally, a code can indicate to others that the profession is seriously concerned with responsible, professional conduct
(p. 35).”
Trinh Truong's picture

Scientists are humans first, and scientists second.

Here is a summary of various ideas that were percolating in my mind, which I was unable to adequately articulate at the time. To answer the question alluding to Galileo, I would say that in our complex society full of complex individuals whose moral priorities vary, many are indeed “inventive dwarfs who can be hired for any purpose." Science as a practice does not have any intrinsic morality. Many scientific endeavors are morals-neutral, and begin as an investigation of individual’s compelling curiosity, barren of any moral purpose. However, sometimes the discoveries to these scientific investigations can lead to significant moral impact. In such cases, it is the impact of these discoveries and inventions on humanity that leads to science being infected with moral dilemmas. We as human beings do have moral obligations to one another, and in any profession, whether it is architecture, medicine, or science, we must consider the impact that our work have on others. Although science is morals-neutral, we are not. We do not accommodate science by changing who we should be; we practice science within the parameters of our humanity, because we are humans first and scientists second. So the question that should be asked is not whether scientists should assume responsibility for the impacts of their work, but whether individuals as human beings should assume responsibility for their work, regardless of their profession.

Lisa B.'s picture

Ideological and cultural component of disease

 In my opinion, Trinh's comment, "scientific endeavors...begin as an investigation of individual's compelling curiosity, barren of any moral purpose" summarizes our discussion on Tuesday. Specifically, in relation to disease, a diagnosis is often loaded with political, economical, and cultural factors. To name a disease requires negotiation between doctors, that are influenced by their medical training, and pharmaceutical companies, that invest for profit. Also, the social diagnosis of a disease may change over time depending on current stigmas.

jrlewis's picture

who takes responsibility for the story?

Imagine a world where there is no demarcation between art and science…  There are only stories: stories about nature, stories about humanity, stories about stories.  The stories are summaries of observations and summaries of summaries; it is stories all the way down.  Everyone shares stories.  This raises the question of who has the right to which stories?  Does the author have a privileged access to the material?  Do the author’s intentions determine the interpretation of the story?  If so, then all authors, including scientists, have a great responsibility with respect to the information they share with society.  People would be bound to consider the impact of their work and take responsibility for it.  They might want to announce their motives as for humanity, knowledge, or profit.  These concerns rest on the assumption that an author can/should influence the interpretation of their text, a general problem of interpretation.  If rejected, then the text must determine its own interpretations and is autonomous upon publication.  Autonomy, intentionality, and interpretation are intertwined. 

jrlewis's picture

From a NY Times article, The

From a NY Times article, The Moral Instinct, “Science amoralizes the world by seeking to understand phenomena rather than pass judgment on them.”

Lisa B.'s picture

Week 1

Many scientists are skeptical of non-scientists and non-scientists are skeptical of scientists. An interesting application of this statement is Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), a German poet, playwright, and theater director. Brecht was a devoted Marxist and used theater as an opportunity to pass on his political ideas.

The play Life of Galileo not only expressed his anti-capitalist theory, but also attacked the scientific community. In scene 14, Brecht wrote of scientists, “the best that can be hoped for is a race of inventive dwarfs who can be hired for any purpose.” This line criticized capitalism because, like scientists, lawyers, soldiers, and other professions are paid to do a job they might believe is unethical. A lawyer might defend a person that is without a doubt guilty, or a soldier might be sent to a foreign country to fight an unpopular war. Unfortunately, in a market economy, most jobs have supervisors and to make a living workers have to follow company policies.

With the world in recession, it is difficult to imagine an economy where people turned down job offers based on conflicting ethical views. I live in Michigan, where the unemployment rate is over 15%. Most people in my state want to make enough money for their mortgage and food expenses beyond that thinking of their jobs, as “a race of inventive dwarfs” would be unappreciative of their employment.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Science code of behavior: cancer

Apropos of a senior seminar discussion of these issues yesterday, and particularly the conversation about cancer research, see For profit, industry seeks cancer drugs in today's NYTimes.  Its the most recent in a relevant series of articles on the Forty Years War

Paul Grobstein's picture

Re science and morality

Interesting conversation yesterday with a group of undergraduate summer research students, against a background of contemporary conflicts of interest, 1960's concerns about science/militarism, and Brecht's portrayal of the 1600's Galileo.  Substantial skepticism about whether individuals could, given economic/educational pressures, actually act in relation to a moral code for scientists, and about whether it was possible to write one that would get widespread agreement.   On the other hand, some useful suggestions about what it might contain ...

  • report entirety of any observations made
  • do unto others as you would have them do unto you
  • seek the truth
  • remove bias
  • understand consequences of one's research
  • objectivity, don't assign meaning where none exists
  • try to do good
  • be skeptical of meanings that you want
  • do research with intention of doing good

Some ideas of my own ...

As a professional scientist, I commit myself to working towards enhancing the potentials of not only myself and those with whom I am associated but of all human beings and of life itself, present and future.  Of necessity, I will be skeptical of all existing understandings, including my own, and encourage a similar productive skepticism in others.  

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