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Rotblat makes a hit with call for a Hippocratic oath

27 June 1999

If an applause meter had been used to judge the popularity of plenary lectures on opening day of the conference, the final presentation by Sir Joseph Rotblat would have been the winner.

The nuclear physicist and 1995 Nobel Laureate for Peace then made another telling appearance on his late arrival at the first press conference of the meeting, by which time ethical issues being faced by scientists had already dominated questions and answers.

The standard table with name plates and chairs were unusually ignored when Federico Mayor, Unesco's Director General, remained standing, together with Werner Arber, ICSU president, Maurizio Iaccarino, Unesco's assistant director-general for natural sciences, and Rotblat, who declined the offer of a chair.

Asked by Nature if Rotblat's heartfelt call for all scientists to take a Hippocratic-type-oath on graduating would be acceptable as a Unesco resolution and, if so, how it would be translated into action, Mayor agreed that "the question of ethics is a crucial one" and had been a "a main point in planning the conference". The end of the century, he said, marks "a moment for an ethical response" and Unesco had made a start six years ago with its bioethics commission, which had produced a declaration on the human genome.

Arber also attached "much importance" to extending to other universities schemes like those at his own university of Basel where PhD students have to take "a kind of Hippocratic oath".

All three extolled the need for closer interaction between natural and social scientists. "I'm not an absolute pacifist but the [atomic] bomb was a worry to me," Rotblat, a co-founder of the Pugwash Conferences for Peace, declared. "Scientists must now accept responsibility for their deeds," he said.

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