Social responsibility in science: former MRC chief sets out vision

A former chief executive of the Medical Research Council will this week set out his vision of how scientists can best fulfil their social responsibility

November 18, 2014

Sir George Radda fled his native Hungary when the Russians invaded in 1956. He went on to forge a distinguished research career in the UK, ran the MRC from 1996 to 2004 and is now chairman of the Biomedical Research Council in Singapore as well as emeritus professor in molecular cardiology at the University of Oxford.

On 20 November, he will deliver the second “Science and Civilisation” lecture organised by the Council for At-Risk Academics. The lectures commemorate Albert Einstein’s speech at the Royal Albert Hall on 5 October 1933, which launched what became Cara with an appeal to “resist the powers which threaten to suppress intellectual and individual freedom”.

In “Biomedical Knowledge in the Service of Man: Social Responsibility of the Scientist”, Sir George will, he told Times Higher Education, look back over his own career and the long history of debates about basic and applied science.

He will point out that already in 1939, John Desmond Bernal argued that “science has ceased to be the occupation of curious gentlemen or of ingenious minds supported by wealthy patrons, and has become an industry supported by large industrial monopolies and by the state”. This was obviously even more true today, so how far was there any continuing validity in “the post-war US model” of scientific research, that one should “get together outstanding people and let them get on with it” without any overt consideration of public responsibility?

Sir George will describe his own experiences of setting up the UK Biobank, which now has data from half a million participants, but which “drew huge fire from parliamentary committees for wasting £70 million. Yet it has now proved highly successful. People without the vision can get in the way.” He will also consider “why Singapore is such a success in biomedical research”.

Although he acknowledged “there are still some who believe you have to give scientists what they want” and that “‘pathways to impact’ inhibit creativity”, Sir George said he was “totally opposed to such ideas”. In reality, he explained, “geniuses are always a small minority” and “99 per cent of scientists are doing incremental work”. We need to accept that “not all scientists are so brilliant they will make major breakthroughs without thinking about their social responsibilities”.

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