Science in a farewell to arms

January 5, 1996

Michael Atiyah arguesthat scientists have been compromised by the military- industrial complex, but by working for the elimination of nuclear weapons they can reassert their integrity.

Last year saw the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. No other single event has so profoundly affected relations between science and society. It cast a very long shadow over the next half century.

The most immediate effect was to highlight in an awesome way the moral dilemma of scientists in relation to the military applications of their discoveries. Many of those directly involved in the development of the bomb went on to become strong advocates of restraint and responsibility in the nuclear arms race that ensued.

The atomic bomb was unique in many respects, particularly in the speed with which a discovery in fundamental physics was put to use. A few short years transformed an abstruse piece of theoretical physics into the most devastating weapon the world had ever seen. No longer would scientists conducting pure research for its own sake be ignored on the grounds that their work was not relevant to the real world. The ivory tower was no longer a sanctuary.

The scale of the Los Alamos project as a technological enterprise brought scientists into the big-money league. They were now involved in an operation costing vast sums and this continued, in the post-war years, with the peaceful development of atomic energy.

Over were the days of the scientist as the poor scholar dependent on a little enlightened philanthropy. From now on science and big money were partners and, like other partnerships, this has produced tensions and crises. Rich friends are all very well but they can lead one to acquire expensive tastes.

If the technical triumph of the atomic bomb pushed scientists into the military industrial complex it also initiated a hostile reaction from the public. Atomic bombs were a menace and the scientists were responsible. Over the past 50 years this anti-science feeling has grown alarmingly, with environmental worries taking over from nuclear weapons as the driving force.

So, as we look back over the 50 years since Hiroshima, we can see that the atomic bomb ushered in a new era for the scientific community. Close collaboration with government, both for military and for industrial purposes, has brought substantial material benefits. But this support has been bought at a price and public suspicion is one of the consequences.

We cannot turn the clock back and revert to our ivory towers. Science now occupies too important a position in modern life. The crucial question we scientists face is how to conduct our relations with government and industry so as to regain the confidence of the public. Here we need some humility. It is no use complaining that the public is simply ill-informed and needs re-educating. We have to examine our own position and see whether any of the criticisms levelled against us are valid. Have we sold out to the military-industrial complex? Do we pay sufficient attention to the way science is applied? Have we subverted the international idealism of science for narrow chauvinist aims?

Of course, all these are heavily loaded questions that many of us will feel unjustifiably impugn the integrity of scientists. Behind the scenes, and in the corridors of power, we may constantly be exercising a benign influence. But this will not impress a sceptical public. Scientists are too often thought of as a secretive elite, a sinister part of the establishment, part of "them", not part of "us". The only way to break down this suspicion and distrust is for scientists to speak out openly and freely, to criticise the establishment when necessary and to demonstrate that independence of thought really is the hallmark of a scientist.

The 50th anniversary inevitably again raised the moral dilemma: was it justified, was it necessary? Even with hindsight, there are no easy answers. What was important about that public debate, however, was that scientists were not all on one side, some were to be found on the side of the bishops, if not of the angels.

Now history, whether factual or mythical, is important: it shapes our attitudes and our thinking. But let us move on to the future, which is more under control. Even before the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, the arms race had been reversed and reductions in nuclear stockpiles were agreed between the US and the USSR. The new political climate offers an excellent opportunity to reduce the nuclear threat even further. The aim of totally eliminating nuclear weapons no longer seems an impossible dream. In working towards this goal scientists have a unique responsibility, and they can help in various ways.

On the technical side they can assist with the dismantling of weapons, the disposal of plutonium and the monitoring of security. On the political side they can keep reminding the public of the horrific nature of nuclear warfare and so maintain pressure on their governments to continue along the disarmament route.

It would be good to report that the United Kingdom government is in the forefront of those working for the reduction of nuclear weapons. Regrettably this is not so. There seems to be no long-term vision, only a complacent reliance on the status quo.

Leaving aside the need to work for a more stable and secure future, we might well ask questions about British policy over the past 50 years. History will show that the insistence on a UK nuclear capability was fundamentally misguided, a total waste of resources and a significant factor in our relative economic decline over the past 50 years.

The facts are easy to come by. Comparisons with Germany will show that both countries have devoted approximately the same fraction of their resources to research and development. However, the division between civil and military R & D in the two countries is very different. Given this discrepancy, and the acknowledged importance of science and technology for modern industry, it would have required gross incompetence on the part of our German competitors if they had not derived a major economic benefit from this additional investment. Very similar remarks apply to Japan.

It may be argued that this economic sacrifice on the part of the UK was made altruistically in the interest of world peace. Perhaps, but I have yet to see this argument supported outside Britain and France.

The alternative justification, that nuclear weapons have given us extra political clout, is equally hard to substantiate. Unless nuclear weapons are used as a form of blackmail they are about as useful politically as an honorary degree is academically. It is economic strength that underpins political influence and this is precisely what will have been sacrificed.

It has been said that Britain and, to a lesser extent, France have had difficulty in adjusting to the loss of the empire. Nuclear status may have been seen by our prime ministers as a substitute, and as a reward for being on the winning side in the war: psychologically understandable, but economically disastrous.

Nuclear weapons are just the most conspicuous part of our military arsenal, and by no means the only part that is crucially dependent on science and technology. A few years ago, after the disappearance of the Russian military threat, there was much talk of the "peace dividend", the conversion of swords into ploughshares. The substantial effort that was going into military R&D would decrease with a corresponding increase in the civil expenditure on R&D. This does not seem to have happened to any significant extent. True, the MoD bill has gone down, but I have failed to detect any conscious policy on the redistribution of scientific resources.

I can understand the problem. Major changes cannot be expected overnight. The conversion of swords into ploughshares has always been a difficult business, and the conversion of swordsmen into ploughmen may be even trickier. Still I would like to see the "peace dividend" being turned into a reality.

There is at present great emphasis on the economic benefits that should be extracted from our scientific base. It seems quite consistent with this policy that we should be trying to divert some of our scientific resources from military to civilian purposes.

I realise the manufacture and sale of armaments are good for the balance of payments and provide employment in this country. To criticise our contribution to the arms trade might be deemed naive, unpatriotic and irresponsible. On the other hand, as a scientist, I cannot by my silence condone a policy that uses the scientific skills of this country to export potential death and destruction to poorer parts of the world, where their scarce resources would be better employed on food and health.

For a short while, after the Gulf war, we heard much about a new world order in which the arms trade would be severely curtailed. Unfortunately the rhetoric has faded and it seems like business as usual. Our economies thrive by building up the Iraqs and Bosnias of the future.

I hope that a British government will someday face up to this problem. Morality and our long-term interests point in the same direction.

Sir Michael Atiyah is master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a distinguished mathematician. This article is based on his 1995 anniversary address to the Royal Society, of which he was president from 1990 to 1995.

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