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'It is a major social obligation of scientists to alert the public to any social implications or possible dangers of their work. But scientists, like all of us, enter the future backwards and thus often cannot see the long-term implications of their discoveries. Professor Lewis Wolpert, 1997
'The needs of defence, or the presumed needs of defence ... condition the kind of technology, and ... the kind of science, that is encouraged in countries which by political circumstances have been forced into the arms race.' Sir Solly Zuckerman
Science is vigorously employed in the research and development of armaments. It also has other characteristics which require it to be regarded as a special case.
It has claims to be more objective, even though its objectivity may be limited. (It has been shown, for example, that the presence of an observer may alter the event observed.)
In modern times scientific discoveries often lead to powerful applications which rapidly affect a society ill-prepared for them. (The development of nuclear weapons was fast, and done in secret.)
Science allows us to recognise facts which existed long before we become aware of them or can take responsibility for their implications. (Psychology has shown how soldiers accused of cowardice were in fact suffering from illness caused by the traumatic effects of war.)
Science and society
Scientists are human beings like anyone else, with the same ability to accept or evade responsibility for their actions. It can be argued, however, that scientists have a particular duty to accept responsibility for what they do in their professional capacity.
Science does not stand still: there is always something new to learn. (In 1933 Ernest Rutherford, who first split an atom, told the public that the idea of atomic power was moonshine.)
Long-term effects cannot accurately be foreseen, or foreseen at all. (The defoliant known as Agent Orange, used by America in Vietnam, has since been found to cause genetic defects.)
Risks and catastrophes are discovered after the events which caused them. (The devastating medical and social effects of the sophisticated weapons technology used in the Gulf War have not yet been fully recognised.)
Science and technology
Above all, the practical uses to which scientific discoveries may be put are full of risks and uncertainties. Furthermore, it is the possible practical use of discoveries that drives scientific research onward. Scientists may be disinterested in their search for knowledge, but their employers are not. Funds may be made available for short-term applications of scientific knowledge, but not for investigation of possible long-term effects. Financial pressures make disinterested research difficult to sustain.
Big business provides funds for specific research, such as the invention of new polymers capable of withstanding the impact of bullets and explosives.
National governments are themselves governed by budgets and profit- incentives, which dictate where research and development money goes.
Themselves driven by national defence policies, the military establishments spend substantial amounts on research projects of specific interest. The military relevance can often be covert.
Scientists as individuals
Even when scientists perceive possible implications and potential risks arising from their researches (as developers of the atomic bomb did), it is often very difficult for them to make these public or to take responsible action.
Scientists, like doctors, are often perceived as having a special power and authority.
Whistle-blowing requires a courage, and an indifference to personal consequences, that few people possess.
Individuals are not usually in positions from which they can control events, foresee effects, or be certain that they hold all the necessary information. Nor can they halt the flow of knowledge-hunting.
Scientists in society
There are, however, many scientists who do feel that they have a special responsibility to consider the implications and consequences of what they do. They have formed groups and organisations to increase public awareness. These are people who say: Peace is the most important preventive skill; who, in this uncertain world, look for a new vision for science and scientists appropriate for a socially responsible democratic society.
In August 1988 a team at the BU Veterinary School learned that it was to receive a large grant from the chemical & biological warfare establishment at Porton Down.
Vet School researchers had unsuccessfully applied elsewhere for funds to study four airborne disease organisms affecting the health of farm animals. Now the Ministry of Defence was making the project possible. But there was a condition attached: research was to be in one organism only. That organism causes potentially fatal pneumonia in humans. The professor in charge admitted that knowledge gained from this research could be used to enhance the survival of a harmful airborne organism for military purposes.
Department staff rebelled. One, who resigned over the issue, said: Not only are scientists members of society but also, because of their privileged insight, they have a greater responsibility to ensure that their work is not being abused. Weapons do not make themselves. As for funding: Scientists are now being coerced subtly to alter the direction of their research in an attempt to find funding from the MoD.
THE DARK SIDE OF OBEDIENCE
In the early 1960s, at Yale University, Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments as part of an enquiry into obedience. One of these was directed at the following question: What will people do when ordered by an experimenter to impose electric shocks in increasing intensities on another person?
Milgram set up an apparent study of 'the effects of punishment on learning' and advertisements were placed for participants. A simulated but convincing-looking 'electric shock generator' was prepared for them to operate. Actors were briefed in the parts of learner (who would answer questions incorrectly, thus meriting punishment, and register physical distress as it increased) and experimenter (who would instruct the participants and maintain calm authority throughout).
Of the 40 members of the general public paid for taking part, all complied with the order to administer shocks up to 300 volts (marked intense shock); as many as 26 responded obediently to the experimenters urging to apply the maximum 450 volts.
The experiment, not surprisingly, was controversial, not only because of the deception practised on the men administering the shocks but also because of the severe distress experienced by many of them while doing so.
Milgram wrote: For many persons obedience may be a deeply ingrained tendency, an impulse, indeed, overriding training in ethics, sympathy and moral conduct.
The 40 subjects were placed in a troubling conflict between not wanting to harm the learner and not wanting to disobey a legitimate authority. The authority in this case was not an official, or a member of an armed force, but a scientist in a white coat.