The Real Responsibilities of the Scientist

Jacob Bronowski (1956)


We live in times of very difficult decisions for scientists, for statesmen, and for the lay public. Many of these decisions are forced on us by new scientific discoveries, and the difficulties in making them are created by the distance between the scientist and the public. (Indeed, there is a frightening distance even between scientists in one field and those in another.) This sense of distance is, I think, a grave threat to the survival of the kind of society in which science can flourish at all.


People hate scientists, There is no use in beating about the bush here. The scientist is in danger of becoming the scapegoat for the helplessness which the public feels. And if an immense revulsion of public feeling does lead to the destruction of the scientific tradition, then the world may again enter a dark age as it did after the Goths destroyed Rome. It is not impossible that the whole mechanical and intellectual society which we know could be abolished by a great wave of fanaticism.


That is the danger which faces us, because people hate scientists. But even if this danger does not materialize, something as terrible can happen  - and is happening. This is that the scientist is forced, by the hatred of public opinion, to side with established authority and government. He becomes a prisoner of the hatred of the lay public, and by that becomes the tool of authority.


My purpose is not to underline these obvious dangers, which we may hide from ourselves but which in our hearts we all know to exist. My purpose is to try to give a picture, as I see it of the real responsibilities of scientists, government, and public, in order that, beginning from this diagnosis, we may begin to cure the great and threatening division between them.


The Abuse of Science

What the lay public does when it hates the scientist is what it does also when it hates policemen and ministers of state and all symbols of authority. It tries to shift the responsibility for decisions from its own shoulders to the shoulders of other people. “They have done this,” it says. And ‘They’ is always the law, the government — or in this case, the scientist.


You must allow me here to make a digression which is not strictly part of my theme, but which I think needs saying. It is this: that we must not forget that scientists do bear a heavy responsibility. I am of course about to explain that really the public and governments bear the main responsibility. But this does not shift from us, the scientists, the grave onus of having acquiesced in the abuse of science. We have contrived weapons and policies with our public conscience, which each of us individually would never have undertaken with his private conscience. Men are only murderers in large groups. They do not individually go out and strangle their neighbour. And scientists are only murderers in large groups - collectively. For scientists are very ordinary human beings. Any collection of people in any laboratory contains good and bad people with consciences and without, and what we have allowed to happen is the conquest of science by the minority without conscience which exists in every group.


It is sad that scientists have been exceptionally corruptible. Look into your own experience. Most of us have come from poor parents. We have worked our own way up. The practice of science has enabled us to earn salaries which would be unthinkable to us if we had stayed peddling whatever our fathers peddled. Quite suddenly, the possession of a special skill has opened to us a blue door in the antechambers of prime ministers. We sit at conference tables, we have become important people. because we happen to be able to be murderers. And therefore scientists have been bought with large salaries and fellowships and rewards quite inappropriate to their merits, because a policy was furthered by their techniques. The scientist has proved to be the easiest of all men to blind with the attractions of public life.


Having said this I now propose to slop abusing the scientist. I think it is right that we should all make this confession of guilt - I have been as guilty as anyone else - but this is all spilt milk, this is all water over the dam. We must now look toward what we can do to remedy what has happened. And it cannot be remedied by a gigantic strike of scientists who will suddenly refuse to have anything to do with commercial or war research, because the society of scientists contains too many fallible human beings to make this practicable.


When the public dreams of such a strike, when it says: “scientists ought not to have invented this or disclosed that secret,” it is already demanding something of the individual scientist which lies beyond his personal responsibility.


The voters of Great Britain elect for the purpose of making their policy six hundred and thirty members of Parliament. They do not elect the people who go to Harwell or the people who go to my own research laboratory. That is: we have already deputed to those whom we elect the responsibility for framing policy in peace and war, and it is quite wrong to ask a body of professional experts like the scientists to take this responsibility from the men whom our society has named.


The individual scientist is not the keeper of the public conscience, because that is not what he was chosen for. The population at large. through its deputed ministers, has chosen scientists to execute certain public orders which are thought to represent the public will. And you cannot ask the scientist to be executioner of this will, and judge as well. If you have given a body of scientists this particular hangman’s task, you cannot ask them also to form a collective opposition to it. The collective responsibility belongs to the lay public and through that, to those who were elected by that public to carry it out.


Thus when Einstein on August 2. 1939. wrote a letter to President Roosevelt in order to draw his attention to the possibility of an atomic bomb, he was acting with exemplary correctness. He was disclosing to the elected head of government a matter of public importance on which the decision was not his, the writer’s, but was the President’s to make.


We must explain to people that they are asking of scientists quite the wrong collective decision when they say, “you should not have invented this.” or “you should not have disclosed that.” This is asking us all to betray the public in the same way as Dr. Klaus Fuchs did, by asking scientists to make decisions which are for the nation to make. The only man whoever, on his own responsibility, was willing to shoulder public responsibility in this way, was Dr. Fuchs. But so far from being hailed as the only sane scientist, he was treated as quite the opposite – as of course he was, since scientists have no right to betray the will of the nation. Yet Fuchs did just what the public asks of every scientist - he decided what to do with a scientific invention.


The Private Conscience

Very well. We will agree that the scientist is not the keeper of the nation’s policy. Then what is he the keeper of? He is the keeper of his own private conscience. His responsibility is not to be seduced as a person. He has the right to act individually as a conscientious objector. Indeed, I believe he has the duty to act as a conscientious objector. I would like to repeat this point. It is in this country an offense to betray the armed forces or to seduce their members from their allegiance. It is not an offense to refuse to be a soldier. And I believe that this is exactly like the position of the scientist. He has no business to act as if he commands the army, but he has a business to settle with his own conscience; the serious business whether he personally will engage in forms of research of which he does not morally approve.


My claim then is that the individual scientist should exercise his own personal conscience. This is his duty. What is the duty of governments in this respect? It is to make it possible for him to exercise his conscience. The responsibility of governments in this is to create the conditions in which a scientist can say: No! to projects in which he does not want to take part. He must even be able to give advice which is distasteful to those in authority, and still must not be hounded out of public life or prevented from making a living.


In all countries the serious threat to scientists who have once touched the fringes of secret subjects is that they are then caught in something from which they can never escape again. They do not get a passport, in case somebody captures them. They cannot get a job because, if they do not want to do this, then they are too dangerous or awkward to be trusted with anything else. This is what we must prevent governments from doing, and this can only be prevented by the opinion of quite ordinary citizens. This is the duty which citizens owe to scientists, to insist that governments shall make it possible for scientists to be conscientious objectors if they wish.


I have explored this subject in general terms, and I would now like to be specific. I would like to tell you precisely what I think is the responsibility of the public, of the scientists, and of governments.


The responsibility of the public is to make the decisions of policy on which their future depends, and make them themselves. And in a democracy the apparatus for this is to elect those people in whose judgment you have confidence - and to elect them on the issues which in fact face the world. Now you can only elect such people, you can only put pressure on them about public issues, if you are well informed. The greatest lack of public opinion today is lack of information about what is possible and not possible in science. This sets my teeth on edge every time I read a scientific newsflash. I will quote one of many instances which I find distasteful: the use of the phrase ‘cobalt bomb.’ This is a technical term for a piece of medical equipment, but has suddenly become transformed into something to describe how a hydrogen bomb might be clothed. As a result, of the fifty million people in this country, forty-nine million and nine hundred odd thousand have heard “the worth ‘cobalt bomb.’ but are helplessly confused between radioactive treatment and something that you blow people up with. The public must be well informed; and the public gets not only the government it deserves, but the newspapers it deserves.


If this is once granted, the next step I think is simple. If it is once granted that we believe in democratic election, and that in our generation this can only be carried out by a public informed on the scientific issues on which the fate of nations hangs, then the duty of the scientist is clear. The duty of the scientist is to create the public opinion for right policies, and this he can only create if the public shares his knowledge.


My generation has a heavy task here, because it ought to spend the bulk of its time - alas - not in laboratories at all, but in explaining to the voting public what is going on in the laboratories. What are the choices which face us’? What could be done with antibiotics, with new materials, with coal (if you like), and with alternative forms of energy? These are urgent questions and yet, however many times we raise them, the layman still does not understand the scale of the changes which our work is making, and on which the answers must hang.


There is a slightly irreverent story about this. At the time the Smyth Report was published in America there was published in this country a White Paper on the British contribution to atomic energy. One of the documents in it is the directive which Mr. Winston Churchill, as he then was, gave about the setting up of an atomic energy project. This directive begins with the words. “Though personally satisfied with the power of existing explosives, ...’ This bland phrase is a monument to a non-scientific education. For it could only have been written by a man, an intelligent man, who simply does not understand how big a million is. The difference between atomic explosives and ordinary explosives is the difference between the length of a nuclear bond and a molecular bond; and this is a factor of more than a million. To suppose somehow that in multiplying the energy of an explosive by a million you are doing nothing very different from multiplying it by two, or five, or ten - this is simply not to grasp the scale of the world.


And the public does not grasp it. To say ten to the sixth to anybody, however educated, is still to invite the reproof today that one is stressing mere numerical details. One of our tasks, as scientists, must be to educate people in the scale of things.


While I am telling improper stories - improper only in the amusing sense - I will tell you that everybody who works in industrial research has this trouble all the time, when he discusses the economics of new processes. We put forward the result of research, or we simply estimate what would happen if a piece of research proved successful. And at once we get back a balance sheet from the finance department which says: the current process makes a profit of 2/2d a ton, and what you have in mind might make a loss of 8d a ton; it is therefore not worth pursuing. This, if you please, is the comment on a piece of research which, if it works on the full scale might cut costs by a factor of five. But no accountant understands a factor of five: he budgets in shillings and pence, and what is liable to loss is to him as good as lost. One cannot explain a factor of five, or a factor of a million, to people who have not been brought up in a scientific tradition. This is what I mean when I say that the scientist has a duty to become a teacher to the public in understanding the pace, the nature, the scale of the changes which are possible in our lifetime.


Government and Opportunity

I have detailed the duties of the public and of the scientist. What are the duties of government? The duties of government are to give its public the opportunity to learn, and therefore to give scientists the opportunity to teach. And I have already suggested that these duties are twofold. One is to give scientists freedom to live their own lives if they do not want to go on with research projects which seem to them without conscience. The other is the duty to allow scientists to speak freely on subjects of world importance.


As for the second, everyone who has ever been connected with the atomic energy projects knows how it is met today. We spend our time waiting for some American journalist to publish some piece of information which we know to be accurate, so that we may then quote it as being the opinion of the New York Times. I am being frank about this: I do it all the time. I read what the greatest indiscreet senator said to the small indiscreet reporters, and I know that nine statements are nonsense and one statement is accurate. Then I quote the one that is accurate - but not as my opinion.


Of course it is natural that governments resist the explosive opinions a of scientists. All governments. all societies are resistant to change. Rather over two thousand years ago. Plato was anxious to exile poets from his society: and in our lifetime, for the same reason, governments are, in effect, anxious to exile or at least silence scientists. They are anxious to exile all dissidents, because dissidents are the people who will change society.


There is a simple difference between governments and scientists. Governments believe that society ought to stay the way it is for good – and particularly, that there ought to be no more elections. Scientists believe that society ought to be stable, but this does not mean the same thing to them as being static. We scientists want to see an evolving society, because when the physical world is evolving (and we are helping to evolve it) the forms of society and government cannot be kept the same.


The Moral Contract

Having described the duties of the public, of scientists, and of governments, let me now underline what I have said by describing what happens in all three cases if these duties are not kept. If governments do not allow scientists freedom of conscience, to work at what they like and to refuse to work at what they do not like, and to speak freely about why they do so, then you get the gravest of all disasters - the disaster of state intolerance. This is a disaster because it saps both sides of the moral contract. For there is a moral contract between society and its individuals which allows the individual to be a dissident; and if the state breaks this moral contract, then it leaves the individual no alternative but to become a terrorist. I do not know whether the great state trials in Russia were just or were false. But I know that if they were just, if men like Radek and Trotsky and Zinoviev really committed those enormities, then this in itself condemns the system of government Which does not allow any other form of protest than such a form. The grave danger to our society too is that this becomes the only choice which is left open to scientists, if state intolerance imprisons them and tries to turn them into a secret Egyptian priestcraft.


The great sin of the public is acquiescence in this secrecy. I am horrified by the feeling that I get, from such trifling things as American advertisements, that people really enjoy the sense that they are not to be trusted. There is an advertisement running in the New Yorker at the moment (I think for a clothing firm) which shows a man who has just got out of an airplane. He has a face like a prizefighter, he is well-dressed and wears what in New York is called a sharp hat, and he carries bag in one hand which is chained to his wrist. He is carrying secret documents, This is the holy of holies. This is what we are to admire - the man with his mouth shut tight who is not trusting you and me, because of course you and I are not to be trusted. When people come to believe this, when they themselves believe that it is better for them not to know, then totalitarianism is on the doorstep. Then you are ready for Hitler to get up and say: I am the man who will take your communal responsibilities I will make your decisions for you.”


And the third in our scheme, the scientist, must preserve the tradition of quarrelling, of questioning, and of dissent on which science (and I believe all post-Renaissance civilization) has been built. He must do this for two reasons. First, there is the mundane reason which is obvious in the failure of German research after Hitler took power. It is this: that you do not get good science as soon as you have reduced the scientists to yes-men. It is the nature of scientists to be thoroughly contrary people - let us own up to that. It is the nature of science as an activity to doubt your word and mine. As soon as you get a science, such as atomic energy research in totalitarian Germany, in which the young men are no longer allowed to question what the great men have said, then that science is dead. You can find in the files of the German Atomic Energy Commission that several young men made what I suppose must be called very good suggestions, but they were not followed because (such is the influence of totalitarianism) Heisenberg already knew the answers already.


This does not happen in English laboratories yet. Mr. Churchill begins by saying that he is satisfied with existing explosives, but after the comma he does give scientists the opportunity to be dissatisfied. This tradition, this independence and tolerance, is I believe the base of all our values; and this is what we as scientists must preserve.


The Duty of Heresy

I have given you the simple practical grounds for allowing scientists to be awkward, but I believe also that imaginatively and intellectually this is equally important. The sense of intellectual heresy is the lifeblood of our civilization. And the heresy of scientists cannot be confined to their science, Newton was thoroughly and rightly contrary in science, and he was also a thorough heretic in religious matters. For the same reason, people like Oppenheimer and Einstein are found to associate with such unreliable characters. You cannot say to scientists: “When you get into the laboratory at nine in the morning you are going to become a dissenter; and when you go out at five-thirty you are going to become a citizen who touches his cap and who is politically sound.” The intellect is not divided into these simple categories.


I have said that the duty of the scientist is today publicly to become a teacher. Let me end by saying something of what he is to teach. There is, of course, the scientific method. There are things about the scale and order of size, of which I have spoken. There are the possibilities which are open to us in controlling nature and ourselves. Above all. he can teach men to ask whether the distance between promise and achievement in our age need be quite so large: whether there must be such a gap between what society is capable of doing and what it does. All this, every scientist can teach.


But every scientist can also teach something deeper. He can teach men to resist all forms of acquiescence, of indifference, and all imposition of secrecy and denial. We must resist the attitude of officials, that there ought to be a good reason why something should be published before you allow it. We must teach even officials that there will have to be a very good reason indeed before anyone is silenced by secrecy.


Mr. Gordon Dean, former chairman of the American Atomic Energy Commission, has just been complaining against secrecy on practical grounds. He says that the commercial reactors which are being built in America are still on the secret list and that this is handicapping American business in its competition with English business for world reactor markets. God works in a mysterious way and it may be that by this anxiety to sell atomic power, science will be liberated. At any rate, let us not look askance at any ally in the drive against silence. My message, in this and in all else, has been the scientist’s duty to speak. There is one thing above all others that the scientist has a duty to teach to the public and to governments: it is the duty of heresy.