by Lewis Wolpert*

How responsible are scientists for science and its applications? In a recent issue of the journal Science the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Sir Joseph Rotblat, proposes a Hippocratic oath for scientists. He is strongly opposed to the idea that science is neutral and that scientists are not to be blamed for its misapplication. Therefore, he proposes an oath, or pledge, initiated by the Pugwash Group in the United States (Science 286, 1475 1999). “I promise to work for a better world, where science and technology are used in socially responsible ways. I will not use my education for any purpose intended to harm human beings or the environment. Throughout my career, I will consider the ethical implications of my work before I take action. While the demands placed upon me might be great, I sign this declaration because I recognise that individual responsibility is the first step on the path to peace.”

These are indeed noble aims to which all citizens should wish to subscribe, but it does present some severe difficulties in relation to science.

Contrary to Rotblat’s view I claim that reliable scientific knowledge is morally and ethically neutral and ethics only enter when science is applied to making a product, for example genetically modified foods (Is science dangerous? Nature 398, 281). If genes are responsible for determining some of our behaviour, that is the way the world is – it is neither good nor bad. Knowledge can be used for both good and evil. Of course, scientists in their work have the responsibilities of all citizens to do no harm and be honest. Their additional responsibility is to put their work and its possible applications in the public domain.

Rotblat does not want to distinguish between scientific knowledge and its application, but the very nature of science is that it is not possible to predict what will be discovered or how these discoveries could be applied. Cloning provides a nice example. The original studies related to cloning were largely the work of biologists in the 1960s. They were studying how frog embryos develop and wanted to find out if genes which are located in the cell nucleus were lost or permanently turned off as the embryo developed. This involved putting the nuclei of cells from later stages in development, including adult cells, back into an egg from which the nucleus had been removed to determine whether the genes in that nucleus would allow the egg to develop. Nuclei from some adult cells could allow the egg to develop and this showed that the genes were still capable of being expressed in the correct way. It was incidental to the experiment that the frog that developed was a clone of the animal from which the nucleus was obtained. The history of science is filled with such examples.

There are, indeed, few cases where scientists as a group have behaved immorally, the main example being the false claims of eugenics. In terms of the pledge, no scientist should ever work for the army or be involved in the defence industry. Should Western scientists have refused to be involved in the building of the atom bomb? That could have been their ethical stance. But imagine if the Germans then had built a bomb and then won the war. Would one then have praised the scientists for their lofty, moral position?

I do not believe that scientists, or any other group of experts, should have the right to take ethical decisions on their own that affect the lives of the public. Their ethical beliefs may not reflect the public view and that is why I have always argued that their responsibility is to put their knowledge, and its possible applications, in the public domain. As Robert Oppenheimer made clear in relation to the bomb, the duty of scientists is to understand how the world works; but how this knowledge is used ultimately lies in a democracy, with the people’s elected representatives. Moreover, scientists rarely have power in relation to applications in science; this rests with those with the money, industry and government. The way scientific knowledge is used raises ethical issues for everyone involved, not just scientists.

Should ethical issues relating to the application of genetics for example, lead to stopping research in this field? The individual scientist cannot decide for a science like genetics is a collective activity with no single individual controlling the process of discovery. I regard it as ethically unacceptable and impractical to censor any aspect of trying to understand the nature of our world.

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King’s College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV for five years, was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science. His book Malignant Sadness. The Anatomy of Depression was published by Faber in 1999. This book was the basis for three television programmes entitled ‘A Living Hell’ which he presented on BBC2. Principles of Development, of which he is principal author, was published by Faber Current Biology in 1998. Passionate Minds with Alison Richards, the second set of interviews with scientists, was published Oxford University Press in 1997. The Unnatural Nature of Science was published by Faber in 1992. The Triumph of the Embryo was published by Oxford University Press in 1991. A Passion for Science with Alison Richards, the first set of interviews with scientists, was published by Oxford University Press in 1988. He also writes a column for ‘The Independent’.

First published 29 July 2002