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PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING OF SCIENCE

Thinking about the responsibility of scientists is more complicated than it seems.

Professor Lewis Wolpert is a biologist and Chairman of the Committee on Public Understanding of Science. It is his view that there is no clear relation between ideas and implementation, between science and technology. ‘Science produces ideas whereas technology results in the production of usable objects. Technology – by which I mean the practical arts – is very much older than science....Not until the nineteenth century did science have an impact on technology.’ From the story of the making of the atomic bomb, he suggests some lessons that can be learned.

1. ‘Building the bomb was a technological commitment, and its achievement was based on scientific knowledge. To the very end there was no certainty that it would work as planned. The gap between basic scientific knowledge and and application in this case was enormous. The principles were well founded, but their application was a gigantic engineering feat which had little to do with science, in the sense that it provided no new understanding of the way in which the natural world works.’

2. The decision to make the bomb was a political decision. Nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos laboratory from 1942 to 1945, made this explicit: ‘It is not the scientist’s responsibility to determine whether a hydrogen bomb should be used.’ This is Wolpert’s view, too: the application of scientific knowledge is a social and political decision which it is not for scientists to take.

3. The bomb’s high profile should not make us forget that guns, other kinds of bomb, and other mechanical weapons are also based on scientific knowledge, and have killed many more people.

4. Science belongs to the public domain; indeed, some of the scientists involved in making the bomb tried to make their scientific knowledge public. “The necessity for the public to be informed about science and its implications is a major obligation for scientists.’

There may not be much difficulty in agreeing with most of these conclusions. Each one, however, raises further crucial questions.

1. Technology and Science
In the twentieth century science has not only had an impact on technology, it is also more closely linked to it. Scientific discoveries are looked for to meet technological needs. Scientific discoveries are also difficult to grasp and control. One project alone can involve the work of a large number of scientists, only some of whom have an overview; those who do understand the whole project may not be able to understand the links between it and projects in other scientific fields, or even projects of a different kind in the same field. All this is before the project and its achievements reach the public domain in whatever layman’s terms are appropriate to it.

Technology is essentially driven by market forces, whether meeting or making a social (or military or industrial) need. Scientific discovery is therefore brought into the market place as well: the demands of technological organisations can dictate the areas in which scientists do most research, and even where they don’t, scientific research still needs subsidy from somewhere. Nowadays it cannot automatically be part of an academic institution’s programming and budget. Wherever the subsidy comes from, it also brings with it the wish for an appropriate and profitable result.

2. Political decisions
How frequent (or likely) is it that political decisions of the kind made by President Roosevelt (to build the bomb) are (a) well-informed (b) well-advised (c) unattached to specific national interest or specific personal power (d) understood (or even known) by the people on whose behalf they are made (e) actually representative of the people’s wishes?

Or, in other words, should decisions arising from scientific research be political at all?

3. Which weapons?
Putting bombs into the context of all mechanical warfare may perhaps encourage people to realise that all warfare is wrong. It may also make those who can accept ‘conventional’ weapons find it easier to feel happy about the more remote, mysterious and devastating technologies of nuclear or biological weapons.

4. Knowledge or ignorance?
Probably most people, even if they are not interested in science or science policies, would agree that in principle openness is desirable. But it is not enough simply to agree that openness should be operative. How can scientific knowledge effectively be made public? Much of it is so complex and specialised that it does not render down well to layman’s terms. Books and television programmes based on ‘popular science. try to bridge the gap; but they are not seen by the majority.

As for implications, can scientists themselves foresee all the possible implications of their achievements?
‘Public understanding of science’ is, in fact, very hard to achieve. There are two main threats to it: public indifference, and administrative secrecy.

 
   

     

   
         
 

 Sun, Jun 17, 2001

 

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