Beware the diabolical in the sublime

December 21, 2001

Scientists must take responsibility for the consequences of their discoveries, argues Joseph Rotblat, and the mantle should sit most heavily on the shoulders of the Nobel laureates.

In his elegant essay on science and conscience overleaf, John Polanyi sketches out the principles that should govern the scientific community in its relations with the world community. But, as Polanyi notes, the notion that scientists are global citizens is still accepted "too infrequently".

The scientific community can be said to form a kind of republic. A republic without a territory but with its own laws, language, methodology and ethics. But the citizens of the republic of science are also citizens of the world community, and it is the interaction between the two that is the crux of the problem. Scientists are, in general, insufficiently aware of their wider social obligations.

At a time when science has acquired a dominant role in the day-to-day life of people and in the affairs of states, at a time when the applications of science may put the very existence of the human species in peril, members of the scientific community all too frequently appear to be oblivious to the changed status of their profession. Many of them shrug their shoulders when asked about their special responsibilities. Worse still, some are engaged in inventing or improving instruments of mass destruction. Often they do this not for any real or perceived need for security but for the sheer exhilaration that comes from innovative work; the same exhilaration that every scientist feels when advancing the frontiers of knowledge. In the republic of science there appears to be a continuum of motivations, from the sublime quest for truth to the diabolical forging of lethal gadgets.

The laissez-faire attitude has its roots in history, when science was largely the pursuit of gentlemen of leisure who set up elitist societies that took pride in distancing themselves from practical applications deriving from their work. Without a physical territory, they provided for themselves a symbolic territory, the ivory tower, in which they sheltered, pretending their work had nothing to do with the welfare of people.

Such an attitude was perhaps justified at a time when scientific findings and their practical applications were well separated in time and space. It would take decades before an application was found for a discovery, and then it would be taken up by different people.

All this has changed. The distinction between pure and applied science is nowadays difficult to discern in many areas of research. Practical applications often follow immediately after scientific discoveries and are pursued by the same people, in the same place. And these applications have a direct and immense impact on the affairs of the world community.

Everything has changed, except the mentality of many scientists. They still live in the ivory tower. They still disclaim any responsibility for the consequences of their work. The only obligation on the scientist - they argue - is to make the results of research known to the public. What the public does with them is its business, not that of the scientist.

Quite apart from the amorality of such a policy, it is also against the self-interest of scientists. Scientific research is a very expensive pursuit, in some areas extremely so, and the public, through elected governments, has the means to control research, either by withholding the purse or by imposing restrictive regulations harmful to science. It is important that science improves its public image, that scientists regain the respect of the community by presenting a human face, by showing an interest in and understanding the needs of human society.

Accepting responsibility for one's deeds is, of course, incumbent on all citizens, not just on scientists. It is becoming even more important in our world of ever-increasing interdependence, an interdependence itself the consequence of scientific and technological advance. Belonging to a group bestows great benefits on its members, but it also imposes obligations on them. No subgroup should claim exemption from these obligations.

Scientists should certainly not seek such exemption. On the contrary, social responsibilities fall more heavily on them for the very reason that their work carries consequences of the utmost gravity. This responsibility should rest particularly with the acknowledged leaders of the scientific community, the Nobel laureates.

Sir Michael Atiyah, the president of Pugwash, said in his Schrödinger Lecture: "If you create something, you should be concerned with the consequences. This should apply as much to making scientific discoveries as it does to having children."

And, referring to the fact that scientists have a better understanding of the technical problems, he made the succinct observation: "Knowledge brings responsibility." I suggest an extension of this dictum: status brings responsibility.

Deservedly or not, the Nobel prize carries a uniquely high prestige; it is recognised as the acme of the honours that a scientist can receive. An aura of all-embracing sagacity attaches to the Nobelists; their opinions, advice and endorsement are sought in all sorts of matters. This high status obliges them to take a more active part in societal affairs, especially in issues of world import, such as the terrorist problem.

It is sometimes said that, outside their own field, scientists are naive and, in any case, no wiser than the average citizen. While this may be true in a few cases, it is certainly not true in general. To achieve the standards of a Nobel prize requires a high degree of intelligence, perspicacity and discernment, and these are the very attributes that are necessary for a rational analysis of the problems facing the world community.

I am not suggesting that scientists should enter into politics. But, as citizens, they should pay attention to the evolving society and, if this leads them to specific conclusions, they should make these known, for example, by writing letters to the press. Voicing their views in public may help other citizens to clarify their thinking. In the first instance, of course, this should refer to the relationship between science and society, the ethical aspects of scientific progress and the avoidance of dangers that may arise from the applications of science.

An office to distribute information about efforts made by Nobelists, with a view to coordinating them, might also be useful. None of us is keen on more bureaucracy, but the facilities of the Nobel Foundation might perhaps be called upon to provide such a service.

Sir Joseph Rotblat and the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs ( www.pugwash.org ) won the Nobel prize for peace in 1995. He is a physicist.

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