Can scientists agree on a code of ethics?

Can scientists agree on a code of ethics? The World Economic Forum Young Scientists community just proposed a Code of Ethics, which was a topic of discussion at the recent World Economic Forum's meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Can scientists agree on a code of ethics?

Scientists typically aim to be ethical, but can they agree on a general code of ethics? 


That was a topic of conversation at the recent World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting held in Davos, Switzerland. The World Economic Forum's stated goal for the gathering is that by "coming together at the start of the year, we can shape the future by joining this unparalleled global effort in co-design, co-creation and collaboration." Building on this year's theme of "Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World," there was a lively panel discussion around "A Code of Ethics for Science." 

Right not, there is not an widely-accepted code of ethics for science. 

The panel was discussing a project of the World Economic Forum Young Scientists community, which put out a Code of Ethics to coincide with this year's 48th annual World Economic Forum meeting. The document stems from a June 2016 workshop that the young scientist group had "to identify and reflect on the cross-cutting ethical issues they are faced with." In consultation with other ethicists and researchers, the World Economic Forum Young Scientists community was able to design a Code of Ethics. The goal is to offer:

"a framework for the promotion of best behaviours in the conduct of scientific research. The objective of the Young Scientists community in publishing this Code of Ethics is to establish the foundations for open conversations that will unite different opinions, perspectives and recommendations to safeguard a positive and sound research environment."-From the Code of Ethics, developed by the World Economic Forum Young Scientist community

The panel on stage at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting to discuss a Code of Ethics for Science included moderator Phillip Campbell (Editor-in-Chief, Nature), Gabriela Hug (Professor, Power Systems Laboratory, ETH Zurich), Jean-Pierre Bourguignon (President, European Research Council), and Jodi Halpern (Professor of Bioethics and Medical Humanities, University of California, Berkeley). Gabriela Hug was the representative from the Young Scientists group.

The Code of Ethics put forth by the Young Scientists group laid out the following seven principles, of which are viewed as aspirational as opposed to baseline. (An audience member during the panel pointed out that in 2007 Sir David King came up with a code for science. His forth principle was to act lawfully. When questioned as to why such basics weren't listed in the Code of Ethics being presented, Gabriela Hug stated that legality was something already assumed and that the goal of their principles was to be an aspiration for scientists.)

The seven principles laid out in the Code of Ethics are:

-Engaging with the public

-Pursuing the truth

-Minimizing harm

-Engaging with decision makers

-Supporting diversity

-Being a mentor

-Being accountable

"As academia is largely a self-regulated community, codes of ethics provide scientists with the support they need to safeguard high standards of behaviour and to make explicit those social norms that allow individuals to operate independently. Many codes of ethics have been drafted, but so far no code that is interdisciplinary and global in its perspective has achieved universal uptake. Being an international group of diverse scientists, be it in terms of research area or cultural background, the authors of this Code of Ethics are thus proposing a much-needed framework for ethical research, to not only shape the behaviour of individuals but also the processes of the scientific institutions that are to facilitate this cultural shift."-From the Code of Ethics, developed by the World Economic Forum Young Scientist community 

Moderator Phillip Campbell started the conversation by emphasizing the these issues may seem easy to agree out, but there are obstacles in the way. “These are very big challenges, actually," said Campbell. "They sound quite simple, but to implement them requires structural support.”

Campbell's point was brought into focus later in the panel discussion as multiple academics brought up their concerns and hesitations during the Q & A. For example, one questioner strongly disagreed with the verbiage of calling the seven principles listed by the Young Scientists as"principles," and thought a different term was need. Another questioner thought that the principles were not always attainable, and pointed to "being a mentor" as something that should not be required of every scientist. Gabriela Hug responded that the principles were again an aspiration, and that there can be exceptions made. Jodi Halpern chimed in that the Code of Ethics presented may want to include a paragraph stating the intended flexibility. 

In fleshing out the principles, Gabriela Hug mentioned that the Young Scientists group assigned multiple scientists to each one of the seven principles laid out. She mentioned that the overall motivation for establishing a Code of Ethics is that scientists is the impact of digitization, more data, and researchers getting data from all different types of sources. In other words, yet another area that has been disrupted by social media and the internet in general--with changes faster then rules and structures are able to keep up with.

Regarding the motivation for developing this Code of Ethics, Hug mentioned the threat of reduced credibility of research if the standards seem to loose. She mentioned the pressure that many young scientists face in being prolific with research, insinuating the tension with quantity versus quality. "We want research to remain credible because we want it to have an impact on policymakers, research being turned into action." One of the goals of Hug presenting about the Code of Ethics, she said, was to start having various research institutions endorse the document, and have those institutions start distributing the Code of Ethics within their network.

“All these goals will conflict with each other," said Jodi Halpern, referring to the issues that may get in the way of adopting a code of ethics for scientists. "People need rigorous education in ethical reasoning, which is just as rigorous as science education...what I’d rather have as a requirement, if I’d like to put teeth anywhere. I’d like to have every doctoral student not just have one of those superficial IRB fake compliance courses, but I’d like to have them have to pass a rigorous exam showing how they would deal with certain ethical dilemmas. And everybody who will be the head of a lab someday will have really learned how to do that type of thinking.”

”I don’t think that many people, even at the World Economic Forum, have the tools of reasoning to look at these things. Whereas almost everybody here knows how to make a statistical assessment or something like that. It’s basic philosophical literacy that I think we’re missing.” -Professor Jodi Halpern

From the tone of audience questions, which occurred for the last twenty minutes of the hour-long panel discussion, having a widely adopted code of ethics for scientists will be an uphill battle. The moderator made light of this, noting the tendency for academia to get caught up in the finer details of semantics. "This is exactly what will happen in academia," said Campbell.

”At the same time," he continued, "we can’t have a collective editing session where we get all the words exactly right. The best hope for this to have an impact is to take it out there, acknowledge that the language in imprecise and flawed, but the principles that are aspirational, even if there is just one that sticks, that would be great.”

==

David Ryan Polgar is a writer, speaker, and co-host of Funny as Tech. You can connect with him at @TechEthicist

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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
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  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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