OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Should scientists become players in public policy debate?

01/25/1999

ANAHEIM, Calif. - As the 20th century draws to a close, scientists are under increasing pressure - and some say, obligation - to use their research data and their status to influence public policy. That decision to mix politics with science, says Mary Jo Nye, is fraught with peril.

The Horning Professor of Humanities at Oregon State University, Nye delivered the annual George Sarton Memorial Lecture Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Anaheim, Calif.

In her talk, Nye said that scientists who choose to take public stands on issues risk attack from members of the public who question their objectivity and neutrality, and from fellow scientists who may dispute their interpretation of data, or feel that science and politics should not mix. When scientists argue publicly over data, or accuse each other of partiality, public confidence in science can be undermined.

However, Nye added, if scientists do not become involved in public policy debates, the result can be a decision-making process involving complex, critical issues that aren't fully understood.

"Scientists have come to feel a social and political responsibility to bring scientific and technical data to the public in order to influence decisions on complicated matters of national and global significance - not only questions of war and peace...but on specific strategies for armament and disarmament, for nuclear energy and nuclear waste, for endangered species and natural habitats, and for global temperature change," Nye said.

Nye is a professor of the history of science at Oregon State University, which is the alma mater of the late Linus Pauling, the only individual to win two unshared Nobel Prizes. Pauling was one major 20th century scientist who discovered the rewards, and hazards, of taking a public stand on a controversial issue and of arguing with fellow scientists in public, Nye said.

Pauling's efforts to halt the testing of atomic weapons garnered him the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize, but also earned him the wrath of fellow scientists and the alienation of some academic and government leaders.

The chasm separating science and politics first began to close during World War I, when chemists became involved in their respective governments' efforts to create chemical weapons. Several scientists on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean became involved, either in protesting the war or signing manifestos defending their country's actions.

A small group of scientists led by Albert Einstein advocated that scientists band together and not become involved in war-related research or governmental advocacy, Nye said.

"When the war ended most of these scientists went back to doing what they were doing before the war, which usually was unrelated," Nye pointed out.

A second major phase that brought scientists into the public arena occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, when the stock market crashed and Fascism was on the rise. A handful of scientists led by Paul Langevin and Jean Perrin took on highly visible roles in socialist, anti-fascist, and pacifist organizations - all committed toward improving the lives of the working class.

"Politically, it was very much a 'campaign for science,'" Nye said, "which stressed the need for broader scientific education, increased funding for scientific research and better coordination of fundamental and applied research. The assumption was that socialism was better for science than was capitalism or fascism."

At the same time, a group of left-wing scientists in Britain began writing newspaper and magazine articles, and organizing fellow scientists to discuss their responsibilities to improve education and industry as well as science.

Then during World War II, the Manhattan Project and other war-related research took the question of scientific involvement to a new level, Nye said. Questions arose as to whether scientists should study atomic energy for military use - and whether new research findings should be kept secret or shared. Once the atomic bomb was developed and used, would the United States share the technology, and with which countries?

"Much of the debate focused on an Atomic Energy Commission, which surely would be set up after the war," Nye said. "The big question was: would it be run by civilians, in which it likely would be open? Or by the military, which would keep the research secret?

"This fear of atomic weapons, and the pervasive atmosphere of distrust, was the very origin of the Cold War," she added.

The arguments continued after the war, spurred on by fear of an escalating arms race. Like Pauling, British physicist P.M.S. Blackett played a visible, and highly controversial role. A respected scientist, Blackett had earlier argued - behind closed doors - that Britain should not enter the arms race and that the U.S. and Britain should trust the Soviet Union. He lost on both accounts.

"So Blackett took his argument to the public," Nye said. "He published a book analyzing military strategy and claimed that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had changed the way military leaders would wage war, prompting them to use strategic bombing instead of 'conventional warfare.'

"Regardless of whether you agreed with his reasoning, Blackett did one thing that stood out - he brought technical arguments into the public forum and prompted scientists to publicly debate research data," Nye said.

Nye said Blackett believed such bombing was effective at destroying cities, but ineffective at winning wars. He provided in-depth arguments outlining the bombs' "explosive power," or TNT equivalent, and other technical data. He shared with the public research data that previously had been in the domain of only scientists.

And now, she said, there is no going back.

"The 20th century has seen scientists who have taken their expertise and reputations into public forums inevitably risk censure both from within and without the scientific community," Nye said. "And there may be risks to the public's confidence in science when scientists bring into public discussion technical matters on which experts themselves cannot agree, and on which non-experts feel free to express an opinion.

"But in the long run," she added, "some notable scientists have thought the perils are worth the risks."