'Do no harm,' scientists are told

Bill Joy has an interesting idea. The Sun Microsystems chief scientist wants all scientists to take something like the Hippocratic Oath (the pledge doctors make to never use their skills harmfully) to protect humanity from the adverse effects of technology. That way, he suggested at a recent conference in Camden, Maine, we would avoid the Dr. Frankenstein scenario where some technological innovations backfire on humanity.

Well, it turns out that such an oath exists. The Hippocratic Oath for Scientists, Engineers and Executives has been proposed by a London-based group known as the Institute for Social Invention. It reads:

"I vow to practice my profession with conscience and dignity; I will strive to apply my skills only with the utmost respect for the well-being of humanity, the earth, and all its species; I will not permit considerations of nationality, politics, prejudice, or material advancement to intervene between my work and this duty to present and future generations. I make this Oath solemnly, freely, and upon my honor."

The institute wants to see the oath become part of graduation ceremonies for scientific disciplines around the world. So far, the group says 18 Nobel laureates have signed the oath. But there are some problems.

"Probably the most important issue, as far as gaining acceptance for the Oath goes," writes Nigel Albery on the institute's Web site, "is what happens to scientists or engineers with ethics, if they obey the Oath, make a stand, and lose their jobs. If the Oath became part of a profession's graduation ceremony, there might be some pressure the professional association could bring to bear on the employer."

In order to help scientists who lose theirjobs for taking such an oath, Mr. Albery says, a fund has been developed that "people could pay into, that would finance alternative scientific institutes, to provide jobs for 'refugee' scientists. There are now four or five such institutes on the [European] continent."

Copies of the Oath are available from the American Engineers for Social Responsibility, PO Box 2785, Washington DC, 20013-2785. You can also learn more about ethical considerations at the Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science at

Tom Regan is associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's Electronic Edition. You can e-mail him at

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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