Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Obligations & Responsibilities

The Edge ( sponsors a yearly question, which it poses notable thinkers and writers. Last year the question was "What are you optimistic about?" This year the question is "What have you changed your mind about?" The answers are found at (the list of contributors to date is given in the sidebar to the left). One answer apropos to our discussions was given by my academic grandfather(*) -


Physicist and Nobel Laureate; Director Emeritus, Fermilab; Coauthor, The God Particle

The Obligations and Responsibilities of The Scientist

My academic experience, mainly at Columbia University from 1946-1978, instilled the following firm beliefs:

The role of the Professor, reflecting the mission of the University, is research and dissemination of the knowledge gained. However, the Professor has many citizenship obligations: to his community, State and Nation, to his University, to his field of research, e.g. physics, to his students. In the latter case, one must add to the content knowledge transferred, the moral and ethical concerns that science brings to society. So scientists have an obligation to communicate their knowledge, popularize, and whenever relevant, bring his knowledge to bear on the issues of the time. However, additionally, scientists play a large role in advisory boards and systems from the President's Advisory system all the way to local school boards and PTAs. I have always believed that the above menu more or less covered all the obligations and responsibilities of the scientist. His most sacred obligation is to continue to do science. Now I know that I was dead wrong.

Taking even a cursory stock of current events, I am driven to the ultimately wise advice of my Columbia mentor, I.I. Rabi, who, in our many corridor bull sessions, urged his students to run for public office and get elected. He insisted that to be an advisor (he was an advisor to Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, later to Eisenhower and to the AEC) was ultimately an exercise in futility and that the power belonged to those who are elected. Then, we thought the old man was bonkers. But today......

Just look at our national and international dilemmas: global climate change (U.S. booed in Bali); nuclear weapons (seventeen years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has over 7,000 nuclear weapons, many poised to instant flight. Who decided?); stem cell research (still hobbled by White House obstacles). Basic research and science education are rated several nations below "Lower Slobovenia", our national deficit will burden the nation for generations, a wave of religious fundamentalism, an endless war in Iraq and the growing security restrictions on our privacy and freedom (excused by an even more endless and mindless war on terrorism) seem to be paralyzing the Congress. We need to elect people who can think critically.

A Congress which is overwhelmingly dominated by lawyers and MBAs makes no sense in this 21st century in which almost all issues have a science and technology aspect. We need a national movement to seek out scientists and engineers who have demonstrated the required management and communication skills. And we need a strong consensus of mentors that the need for wisdom and knowledge in the Congress must have a huge priority.


* My adviser David Levinthal was Leon Lederman's graduate student at Columbia University.

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