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An Oath for Scientists?

Aware that, in the absence of ethical control, science and its products can damage society and its future, I pledge that my own scientific capabilities will never be employed merely for remuneration or prestige or on instruction of employers or political leaders only, but solely on my personal belief and social responsibility — based on my own knowledge and on consideration of the circumstances and the possible consequences of my work — that the scientific or technical research I undertake is truly in the best interests of society and peace.

This is the famous Buenos Aires Oath, which grew from the efforts of Guillermo LeMarchand and others — mostly Argentine astrophysicists — who covered a conference on “Scientists, Disarmament and Peace”. Jeremy J. Stone (Journal of the Federation of American Scientists, 41, 1-4, May 1988) writes that “LeMarchand, especially, and some of his associates had wanted some kind of Hippocratic Oath for scientists from the beginning and his contribution to the conference was a paper detailing the efforts of the past to get one adopted at Pugwash, at the International Physicians Movement and in the U.S. He calculated that 1.7 billion hours per year were being spent by scientists ‘on the planet’s destruction’ and that 30% of the totality of the scientists, engineers and technicians of the world were working on R & D for military purposes.” “He urged the establishment of a ‘project to ethically bind people upon graduation’ to use their knowledge ‘only for the benefit of mankind.”

David Krieger of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation produced in 1988 the following oath:

As scientists, we are seekers of truth and explorers of our universe from its smallest particles to its largest spaces; We pledge to use our intellectual gifts, and employ our skills for the benefit of humanity, placing the common good of our own species above that of any nation; We promise never to knowingly contribute our talents to the creation of weapons or other tools of destruction, nor to military systems which support such weapons; We shall seek to employ the benefits of scientific discovery to support life, and will speak out against scientific research and projects used for or threatened for destructive purposes; Having had special access to higher education and training, we affirm our responsibility to educate our fellow citizens, clearly distinguishing between fact and conjecture; We accept the obligations of this oath as a foundation for focusing the benefits of science for the good of humanity.

In addition to these oaths, the Institute for Social Inventions in London had already circulated (The Scientist, November 16, 1987) a Hippocratic Oath for scientists, engineers and executives. The oath — product of an “unusual alliance” of scientific luminaries and the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science is as follows:

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 honour.

Among the initial signers of this oath were John Kendrew, Abus Salam and Maurice Wilkins (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA) — all Nobel Laureates.

It goes without saying that all three oaths (and there are others that are good) have many virtues. However, the Buenos Aires Oath may prove to be the one that endures.

Chandler Davis of Science for Peace also proposed in 1988 a Hippocratic oath for mathematicians based on the Buenos Aires Oath. And Eric Fawcett (Science for Peace) and Peter Wills (a New Zealand physicist) urge scientists to append the following endorsement to each of their publications:

It is the author’s wish that no agency should ever derive military benefit from the publication of this paper. Authors who cite this work in support of their own are requested to qualify similarly the availability of their results.

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