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Scientists have morals too

A group of early career scientists have written a code of ethics through an initiative of the World Economic Forum. Chemist and co-author Sander van Kasteren explains its importance: ‘We want to show that we scientists have our own inherent morals too, and that we too are part of society.’


Normally, ethical rules for science are drawn up top-down by policy makers and organisations. This project is unique because scientists made the entire code themselves in a bottom-up approach. ‘This time we wanted to write something about ethics ourselves, because it is always other organisations that impose that subject on us’, says Van Kasteren. ‘With this code we send a signal that we scientists can very well determine a code of ethics ourselves. Moreover, the problems that we encounter in our daily lives may be different from the ones that outsiders have in mind.’

Code of ethics

Van Kasteren wrote the code of ethics together with a dozen scientists from around the world, during an event of the World Economic Forum. Their code consists of seven main principles, of which some are quite obvious. ‘You shouldn’t lie’, says Van Kasteren. ‘But also, be a good mentor for the next generation. For instance, how do you break racism and sexism that are intertwined with a culture? But secretly one of the most important things of our code is reaching out. And especially about the method. Science is a self-improving entity. And sometimes we are wrong, but then we try to improve that. That’s inherent to science.’

The seven principles

Science and society

As a son of science journalist Joost van Kasteren he learned the importance of reaching out from an early age. He therefore hopes to clarify to the public how science works. ‘What we see as the truth, is a totally different definition than the truth that non-scientist see. A fact to a scientist is a fluid entity: it is something that best fits the observations at the present time, but any new observations can change that.

Do it yourself

That Van Kasteren got involved in this project, was actually a coincidence. He got an invitation from ERC to apply for the Annual Meeting of the New Champions, because he got an ERC Starting Grant in 2014. ‘And suddenly I was in China’, he laughs. During one of the focus sessions for scientists the question popped up: can scientists write their own ethical rules. ‘We brainstormed a lot then, and after that we have had many group sessions via Skype. It was very nice that we had the support of the World Economic Forum, who said: “it’s all about you”.’


Van Kasteren is unsure about the future of the code. Policy makers are slowly starting to pick it up and the journal Nature has paid attention to the code. ‘The ball is rolling now, we will see what will happen with it’, he says. What he doesn’t want, is that it will be forced. ‘It is a good insight in our inherent self-regulation, but it should not be seen as an oath.’    

The World Economic Forum takes place every winter in Davos in Switzerland, where the CEO’s of the largest companies, international politicians and journalists come together. This organisation holds the Annual Meeting of the New Champions every summer since 2007, where young talented business leaders and scientists come together with political leaders. The meeting takes place annually in either Dalian or Tianjin (China).