The time is ripe for scientific organizations to adopt codes of ethics, according to a scientist and bioethicist from Wake Forest University School of Medicine in the current issue of Science and Engineering Ethics.
"Medical practice and human subject research is influenced by the Hippocratic tradition," said Nancy L. Jones, Ph.D., "but no similar code of ethics has been formalized for the life and biomedical sciences. Like the Hippocratic oath, a code of ethics for the life sciences can provide a continual standard to shape the ethical practice of science."
Jones, an adjunct associate professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, is an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) science and technology policy fellow at the National Institutes of Health. She is a fellow at the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and is a recent member of the Secretary's Advisory Committee on Human Research Protection of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
She said a code of ethics is necessary because of the rapid pace of scientific breakthroughs, such as Dolly the sheep, the human genome project, human embryonic stem cells, and gene transfer.
"The stakes are higher than ever before in human history," writes Jones in the article. "Enhanced concerns over bioterrorism have focused attention on the dual use of knowledge derived from biological research that can be used as easily for malicious purposes."
But Jones points to a more far reaching impact of scientific activities. "Scientific prowess claims to not only predict our future, cure, or destroy people, and control evolution, but more portentously reframe what it means to be human."
In her article, Jones presents a prototype code of ethics designed to provide a framework to spur discussion within the scientific community about how to define scientific professionalism.
While some professional societies are tackling this issue, not all professional societies in the life sciences have codified their ethical principles, according to Jones. She said the effort must go beyond education programs and that professional societies must be leaders in defining professionalism and taking responsibilities to self-regulate.
The Office of Research Integrity, for example, works to bolster scientific integrity by educating scientists on research integrity and responsible conduct of research. Jones said that while concerns about ensuring that data are credible and objective are important, there are newer concerns, such as how areas are chosen for research, who decides the distribution of scarce science resources, the motives behind scientific inquiries and whether the scientific communities will take responsibility to police themselves.
"A code of ethics should provide guidance for which knowledge should be sought, define the ethical means of acquiring knowledge, emphasize thoughtful examination of potential consequences, both good and bad, and help society prescribe responsible use of the knowledge," writes Jones.
Her prototype code compares the norms of life sciences to the Hippocratic tradition. In part, it reads, "In granting the privilege of freedom of inquiry, society implicitly assumes that scientists act with integrity on behalf of the interests of all people. Scientists and the scientific community should accept the responsibility for the consequences of their work by guiding society in the developing of safeguards necessary to judiciously anticipate and minimize harm."
The code goes on to discuss such principles as objectivity, research freedom, respect for subjects, and virtues such as duty, integrity and altruism.
Jones said an ethics code should "not be merely endless rules and regulations, but should set the aims, principles and virtues that inspire the best ethical practice and character of scientists."
Jones said that adopting a code of ethics is merely the beginning. "Further work is essential to not only translate the codes of ethics into codes of conduct, but societies must design systems to enforce these codes," she writes.
Note: This article has been adapted from a news release issued by Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.