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Ethics enters the 21st century

01 Nov 1999

Scientists can no longer afford to ignore the ethical consequences of their work, says Gérard Toulouse. He believes that professional bodies and scientific academies must lead the way in promoting ethical debates and protecting those who speak out.

When the great and the good met at the World Conference on Science in Budapest in June, one question was on many people’s lips. How much has science changed since the previous World Conference held in Vienna 20 years before? One major development has been, of course, the collapse of science in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union following the fall of communism. Less spectacular, but equally significant, has been the rising influence of the Third World Academy of Sciences, which was set up in 1983 in Trieste in Italy.

These two examples may serve to illustrate the important role played by scientific institutions in the development of science. Such institutions also have a vital part to play in the ethical implications of scientific research, which have changed considerably since the Second World War. No longer can scientists simply ignore ethics or sweep it under the carpet. As the particle physicist Sidney Drell has pointed out, the scientific community has a responsibility “to be alert to the implications and practical uses of our progress”. The community as a whole – in the form of its scientific institutions – has a social obligation to monitor the ethical uses of scientific knowledge. Indeed, I believe that the 21st century will be a “century of evaluation”, in which economic and ethical judgements in science will become increasingly important.

Scientific societies and ethics

The dissident Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov – who died in 1989 after a lifetime of courageous, outspoken protest against the arms race and in favour of democratic freedom – provides an excellent example of how science and ethics interact. His life raises two key questions. First, why did the Soviet science establishment not protect Sakharov better than it did? After all, everything that Sakharov ever said about caring for the environment, supporting democracy and respecting human rights was basically sound – and even common sense – yet he was ignored, and indeed exiled to Gorky for seven years.

The other question his life raises is why did the collapse of the Soviet Union lead to the collapse of the scientific establishment there? The obvious answer is that the scientific establishment was too close to power and too distant from ordinary people. One might even say that “the Soviet Union lived by science and perished by science”.

Over the last ten years, developing countries have been learning from the collapse of science in the communist world. The Soviet model no longer appears to be the smart shortcut to scientific progress that it once did. Indeed, in preparation for this year’s World Conference, two scientists from south-east Asia published an article in Nature (1999 399 633) entitled “Scientific societies build better nations”. Rather than denouncing, as perhaps one might have expected, the dominant Western model, they argued that such societies have much to contribute to the national development of Third World countries.

But which example of a Western scientific society should developing nations follow? Clearly the most dynamic scholarly society in physics is the American Physical Society (APS), which recently celebrated its centenary. When the last APS president, Andrew Sessler, was asked how the society has changed over the last hundred years, he explained that the APS is no longer a body concerned only with physics, but that it has evolved into “a society with a social conscience”. For example, the APS set up a forum on physics and society in 1972, and soon after created a panel on public affairs, a committee on international freedom of scientists, as well as other groups on women, minorities, science planning, applied physics and careers.

One of the first initiatives of the forum on physics and society was the creation of the Leo Szilard lectureship award, which is given for “physics in the public interest”. Szilard was a pioneer on many issues relating to ethics in science, as his witty and imaginative book The Voice of the Dolphins (Simon and Schuster 1961) makes clear. And last year, to celebrate the centenary of Szilard’s birth, the APS gave the award new impetus by setting up a fund to enable the holder to lecture to groups of young physicists.

The role of national academies

Let me now turn from scholarly societies, which are the professional bodies representing particular disciplines, to the national academies, which cover all of science. These may be classified into two broad categories – “functional academies”, which are healthy, and “fossil academies”, which are sick. Three examples of healthy academies are the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society in the UK and the US National Academy of Sciences.

One feature of healthy academies is that the number of members, N, does not increase linearly with the population, P, of the country, and does not remain constant either (see right). This is because national science academies are not just representative of the country’s population (if they were, then N would simply be proportional to P) but are also representative of world science as a whole with its many disciplines (a requirement that would imply that N should be independent of P). The interplay between these two constraints leads to a curve that is neither a straight line from the origin, nor a constant, but something in between.

The way in which the number of members changes with time enables one to make a clear distinction between healthy and sick academies. If we assume a “quasi-stationary” regime, then the number of members, N, is simply the number of people joining the academy each year, F, multiplied by the average time that they remain in the academy. Since that average time is the difference between the age at which the members die, T2, and the age at which they are elected, T1, we can say that N = F(T2 – T1).

For healthy academies, N tends to increase with time for three reasons: first, F tends to increase, because the number of scientific disciplines is always growing; second, T2 increases naturally as people tend to live for longer; and third, healthy academies do not permit the average election age T1 to creep upwards. But if an academy limits the total number of members, it can become increasingly divorced from modern science and society. Such a catastrophic decoupling indeed occurs for those “microcanonical” academies: in other words, if N is held constant, T1 will shoot up because F and T2 are increasing. This leads to an unstoppable process of “fossilization”, a vicious circle in which the people who elect new members to their academy – having lost contact with laboratory life, younger scientists and cutting-edge research – prefer to choose other scientists who are equally old and out of touch.

This catastrophic process has been neatly documented by Alfred Kastler, the physicist who won the 1966 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on atomic spectroscopy. Kastler looked at the average age at which scientists were elected to the French Academy of Sciences, and found it has steadily risen from about 45 in 1850 to 72 today. The reason why the academy does not allow N to rise is that it receives a sum of money from the government, which it divides between its members. The only way that the academy could increase the number of members, while maintaining the amount it pays them, would be to ask for more government funds – an approach that is not good for independence.

In sharp contrast, the Royal Society has a statute that states: “The society shall not, and by its laws may not, make any dividend, gift, division, or bonus unto or between any of its members.” The lack of any form of financial privileges is the key to the society’s openness and adaptability. The amusing paradox here is that Robert Hooke, who helped found the society, stated in 1663 that “the business and design of the Royal Society is to improve the knowledge of natural things…not meddling with Moralls”. But it turns out that the ability of the Royal Society to carry out its aims has been crucially dependent on this ethical rule. Far from being an obstacle to efficiency, ethics proved here to be essential for it.

Whistleblowers need protection

Another important role of scientific societies and academies is to protect whistleblowers. As the physicist Joseph Rotblat said in his acceptance speech for the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize: “Whistleblowing should become part of the scientific ethos.” Scientists who alert the wider world about risks or misconduct in science should be allowed to do so, just as they are when discussing truths within science itself. In other words, people who speak out about ethical problems in science need to be protected as they spread their message. If the whistleblowers are silenced, inertia prevails and catastrophes will occur.

An instructive parallel can be drawn between the lives of Andrei Sakharov and Abdus Salam, two physicists whose destinies have been linked with the two major confrontations of the last 50 years: between East and West in the case of Sakharov, and between North and South in the case of Salam. Although Sakharov was elected to the Soviet Academy of Sciences at the age of only 32, he was not effectively protected by the scientific community, and his warnings went unheeded.

Salam was also young – just 33 – when he became a fellow of the Royal Society. But unlike Sakharov, Salam’s concerns for the needs of developing nations and his practical suggestions for helping them were not ignored. Within five years of his election to the society, he had founded the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, which was later followed by the Third World Academy of Sciences and other worthy institutions. (It is a remarkable peculiarity of the Royal Society that British nationality is not a requirement for fellowship; so although Salam was a Pakistani, he was elected as a fellow, rather than as a foreign associate.)

But whistleblowing is not reserved for the famous. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), for example, has created a prize for scientific freedom and responsibility, which recognizes and supports courageous individuals. The list of laureates, and the story of their lives and predicaments, provide instructive, concrete lessons on some hard realities of our time.

And in Europe, the German Research Council set up an international commission on self-regulation in science in 1997, following the disclosure of a major incident of fraud and misconduct in biology, dubbed the “Herrmann-Brach affair”. The commission came up with 16 recommendations, including rules for properly evaluating research, for promoting good scientific practice, and for dealing with the thorny question of “honorary authorship” on scientific papers. I hope that all 16 recommendations will soon become European standards.

Societies must take the lead

But how should the responsibility for raising ethical questions be shared between the individual and the community? While not everyone is expected to become a hero, every scientist should see to it that scientific institutions and societies provide adequate evaluation and protection for those who take risks in advancing disturbing truths. The need for rationality is not just relevant to the natural sciences, it is also relevant in the realm of human responsibility. And just as human impunity behind state sovereignty is no longer acceptable for politicians, so impunity behind value-free science will no longer be acceptable for scientists.

Let me end with the hope of Rammal Rammal, the Lebanese condensed-matter physicist whose family background, and early brilliance, were similar to those of Salam. Born in Beirut in 1951, Rammal came to France for his university studies and stayed there for most of his scientific career. Shortly before he died in 1991 – after so many years of Lebanese civil war – he wrote in his last message to me: “[I have] one hope alone: that human intelligence will take over.”

His hope has now become a European one, because the Rammal medal is in the process of becoming the first distinction sponsored by Euroscience – a new association with the ambition to become the European equivalent of the AAAS. And in the light of Rammal’s hope, let me formulate a pragmatic wish that the European Physical Society will draw inspiration from the best achievements of the APS – its openness, its dynamism, and its affirmative actions. Let me also wish that Euroscience will emulate the AAAS in its clever, intelligent initiatives.

* This article is a shortened and edited version of the Cecil Powell memorial lecture given by the author in September at the 11th general conference of the European Physical Society in London.

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