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On the proposed code of conduct for scientists

Before I start, Shanna Tovah - happy new year - to all my readers who are celebrating Rosh Hashannah.

Recently, the chief scientist in the UK has proposed that all scientist and other productive people be sign up to a code of conduct. While I have no particular objection to the principles contained therein, I am uncomfortable about them.

Act with skill and care in all scientific work. Maintain up to date skills and assist their development in others.

The first part is nice and meaningless. How do you do scientific work without skill or care? Actually, the answer is, surprisingly, very easily. Mistakes in the lab sometimes lead to great discoveries. Take the work of Florey and Fleming, for example.

As far as the latter is concerned, surely this is a matter for individual choice? In fact, if someone isn't paid to assist in the development of up-to-date skills in others, why foist the obligation on them. As an example, I am paid to do a set of tasks, none of which formally involve developing others. Any time I spend doing so either detracts from the time I spend doing my own job, or forces me to use my own non-work time. What's next? Sciencechoices?

Take steps to prevent corrupt practices and professional misconduct. Declare conflicts of interest.

Ok, no objections here, except that I don't see how you can expect people to take steps in others' behaviour. I read somewhere about this that this would encourage young scientists to act as whistleblowers if more senior colleagues act badly. On what planet? Under what conditions would someone going from fixed-term contract to fixed-term contract with a remarkably low job security whistleblow on their boss? Or even their ex-boss?

Be alert to the ways in which research derives from and affects the work of other people, and respect the rights and reputations of others.

Affects the work of? Does that mean if you know that publishing something will affect someone else's work, you shouldn't do so? How does this reconcile with the previous point, anyway? If someone has published crap, can you not destroy their work?

Ensure that your work is lawful and justified.

Justified? We can't do work "just out of curiousity"? And lawful? What if the law is wrong? Or immoral? What if the law contradicts the best scientific knowledge? Remember, this is supposed to be universal. There are countries which don't quite have the freedom of intellectual thought that is found in, say, the UK. Can you work on creationism in an evolutionist theocracy?

Minimise and justify any adverse effect your work may have on people, animals and the natural environment.

Don't do anything unless you know you will get good results. No more blue sky research. While we're at it, work in the dark, don't use paper and become a breatharian.

Seek to discuss the issues that science raises for society. Listen to the aspirations and concerns of others.

Translation: anything you might do that might be controversial must be run past the editors of the Sun first.

Do not knowingly mislead, or allow others to be misled, about scientific matters. Present and review scientific evidence, theory or interpretation honestly and accurately.

Allow others to be misled? Does this mean I have to constantly to be contacting newspapers correcting all the scientific inaccuracies they insist on publishing? How proactive do I have to be in clearing up misconceptions? If one journalist is a serial offender and will not print corrections, am I required to shoot them?


I don't like motherhood statements at the best of times. Particularly not when they are as ill-conceived and disputable as these ones are. I have only (peripherally - it was a colleague of a colleague) encountered one case of intellectual dishonesty from my time in science, and as soon as it was discovered, it was dealt with. Having the code of conduct wouldn't have changed the outcomes - in fact codes of conduct never seem to make people do the right thing, just look at ministerial codes or banking codes - so given that, what's the point?

More importantly, the smallest problem with ethics in science is the scientist. Universities, politicians, sensationalist press, industry, publishers and a disfunctional system are all far bigger problems. Discuss.


Comment from Todd

What a simplistic load of Drivel (and I don't mean your writing).... How a scientist came up withthat I don't know. But then by the time you're chief scientist you're not really a scientist.

I respond

Are you sure my writing isn't a simplistic load of drivel? I suppose maybe it has its moments. Anyway, what about the chief scientist of Australia? He still earns a crust sciencing for a big multinational.

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