Article Text

Download PDFPDF
Science, ethics, and professional public health practice
  1. D L Weed1,
  2. R E McKeown2
  1. 1Division of Cancer Prevention, National Cancer Institute, EPS T-41, 6130 Executive Blvd, Bethesda, MD 20892–7105, USA
  2. 2Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Norman J Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC 29208, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr D L Weed;

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

Competing values and obligations


At the core of professional public health practice is a promise to help society by preventing disease and promoting health. Public health is a calling, as much an art as it is steeped in scientific theory, method, and evidence. We, the public health professionals, learn theory and practice in the classroom and hone them in experience. We define core values and embrace integrity, prudence, honesty, and trust. We develop standards of excellence and codes of ethics to guide our professional pursuits.1,2 Our practice is a complex blend of acquiring scientific knowledge and participatory policymaking. We study communities and individuals, the healthy as well as those who suffer from disease, injury, malnutrition, and untimely death. We recommend and advocate policies with others, for others, and for ourselves.

Ethics as an academic discipline and as a pragmatic dimension of our daily professional lives offers a conceptual framework and methods for thinking about and improving the practice of public health. Inevitably, we encounter situations marked by tension between competing values and obligations. Of the many problems that require attention, we choose three: evidence to action; the pitfalls and promise of public advocacy, and the balance between individual freedom and the common good.


The scientific knowledge that matters to public health interventions extends from the physical and biological sciences to epidemiology and on to the environmental, social and behavioural sciences. The problem of deciding when to act on the basis of that knowledge is as much synthetic as …

View Full Text