As scientists we’d like to think and even take a bit of pride knowing our research is as value-free as it could be, detached from any political, economical or societal forces and influences. Yet history teaches us how basic research discoveries, from radioactivity to insulin or stem cells, have truly made a huge impact on society, with some of these discoveries turned into life saving treatments and others into weapons of mass destruction.
The issue of value-free or value-laden science is one of the main topics of the upcoming symposium Science and Society 2013: Emerging Agendas for Citizens and the Sciences, organized by the Institute for Science, Society and Policy and Situating Science. One of the events open to the public during this conference is a live performance of selected excerpts from a Michael Frayn play entitled Copenhagen. While not a canonical “stem cell” story (the plot is indeed a re-visitation of an historic meeting that took place in Copenhagen in 1941 between physicists Niels Bohr and his colleague and friend Werner Heisenberg), it did attract my attention because of the implications shared by all scientists working on “high impact” technology.
In the play, the ghosts of Bohr and Heisenberg interrogate each other on the moral responsibility (if any) and leverage of their work on atomic fission during World War II. “I simply asked you if, as a physicist, one has the moral right to work on the practical exploitation of atomic energy…because the exploitation was obvious…if we could build a reactor we could build a bomb” [Copenhaghen, Act 1]. The two physicists struggle to find an answer to this question. The debate goes on in front of Bohr’s wife Magrethe, who never leaves the stage, and most importantly is not a scientist. Bohr and Heisenberg are faced with the hard task of explaining how one can derive energy from the splitting of an uranium atom and how this energy can be use to build a bomb. “It’s not easy to explain things to the world at large. I realize that we (scientists) must always be conscious of the wider audience our words may have” [Copenhagen, Act 1].
To me, the most captivating part of the discussion is a reflection made by Heisenberg to Bohr: “Sooner or later the government will have to turn to scientists and ask whether it’s worth committing to those resources. We are the one who will have to advise them whether to go ahead or not.”
Scientists exercise their influence through public engagement events or meetings or by acting as advisors and consultants for governments and other institutions. We claim the right to inform the public and the government on our research and on the impact of it. With every right comes a responsibility. Scientists should not only master the art of using a pipette to clone a gene but they must acquire those skills that will put them at the forefront of policy making strategies to improve the well being of every individual. As Bohr and Heisenberg wisely predicted: “This is physics…it’s also politics. The two are sometimes painfully difficult to keep apart.”
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