Science in Society Archive

Maurice Wilkins Talks on Social Responsibility in Science

LSC 11th May 1999 5.30pm

Precis by Angela Ryan, Institute of Science in Society

Please note

I have written this report in the first person in order to preserve the autheticity of the message from the speaker. The speaker has agreed that this is indeed a true account of what was said.

There are various levels in which social responsibility in science can be demonstrated.

One way is through individual scientists. Sue Mayer is one such scientist She resigned her post at a MAFF associated laboratory in Bristol after she had been asked to work on a project that would eventually lead to the development of bacterial weapons. This is the only example I know of in Britain were a person's moral position took precedence over their scientific career. The other is through organizations like Pugwash, Scientists for Global Responsibility, special governments committees and so on.

There is an increase in importance to develop all these levels of social responsibility so as science can be seen in relation to the needs of society. Science is an Art and Philosophy used in the development of civilization for the benefit of society.

During the Nazi war, I was working as a physicist on radar at Birmingham University. We helped some fellow physicists who were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and the physics department at Birmingham was thick with these very good people. Then nuclear capabilities came along and I remember tripping on some sacks in my head of departments office and him saying to me 'be careful with those, they contain Uranium oxide'. Anyway I became interested in this new development and we all got into it , each carried along by the group feeling. It later took me to Berkley California where I worked on the bomb. On the day the bomb was detonated, for the first time, I made a visit to a good friend who said to me, 'This is a black Monday, I always hoped it would never work'. When Nagasaki and Hiroshima happened and I was disgusted, I thought of giving up science altogether and going off to Paris and becoming a painter. Then I read Schrodingers book 'What is Life?' A big question I thought and that got me interested in biology. I thought biology would not lead to the same sorts of terrible consequences. In 1960 I gave a speech in San Francisco after receiving the Lister Prize and I said that every real important scientific discovery leads to important applications. I was struck by the response of the audience who wowed and showed warning over this remark. I thought then that perhaps such equally awful things could come up from of the discovery of DNA and I may not have been entirely wrong there.

There was worry about genetically engineered bacteria escaping from laboratories and Steven Rose, myself and others had a big meeting at the Royal Society about genetic engineering and that got the British Society for Resonsibility in Science off the ground. Later three Nobel laureates and others held another big meeting of friends just as Edwards and Steptow were preparing the ground for test tube babies and there was talk of all the unnatural things that science was doing. But they went about it in a very responsible manner and it went well. These people did very careful work.

There are many other very controversial areas in science. Science is essentially unpredictable. We have been caught out in BSE by political and financial interests. We now have the GM debate and the Royal Society called a lengthy one day meeting calling on all sorts of people, representatives of consumer groups, Jonathan Porritt, Green Peace etc. Lord Sainsbury said that people should engage in 'open debate'. I was looking for a more positive word, 'open dialogue', that's it. This meeting was historic, it strikes a new note although it hasn't got much publicity. There has been too much dependence on the man in the white coat. We now see clearly in medicine that patients want to be treated like human beings and not talked down to.

About open dialogue, I remember Francis Crick talking about why he and Watson had worked so well together. He offered a very creative word 'frank', open to the point of even being a bit rude to one another. This is a key thing for the future, frankness between specialist scientists and not so specialist ones. Money from industry is increasingly pouring into science now. Denis Potter battled to hold on to his life before he eventually passed away so as to give us a very important message for the future. Lazerous, like Rupert Murdoch shows us the immense power an individual can have and I think this is a very important message. Money does make the world go round and it's not so easy as it was thirty years ago in science.

The difference between wisdom and knowledge? The de-humanization of scientists, noses always down at the work bench and the pressures seem to be moving more and more that way. Scientists must look broader because they are very involved. In the work of Coleridge he says that scientists love their experimental material and that this love can be an impediment. We must broaden more and there must be a closer coming together of Art and Science and a broader understanding of human life.

In some of our teachings at Kings we touch on a poem by William Gruper and I'm going to read some of it out because it says more about wisdom and knowledge that I can ever hope to.

Walking in white snow after a fall

Stillness echoes with sounds so soft

Learning wiser grow without his books

The heart may give good lesson to the head

Jonathan Glover, Philosopher at Kings then spoke.

Important points made by Jonathan Glover and afterwards during the discussion:

  • Jonathan Glover, Prof. of philosophy at Kings suggested we establish a 'Whistle Blowers Charter' to protect whistle blowers from victimization. He remarked that the chap who exposed the incompetence of the surgeon in Bristol was dismissed and thereafter found it impossible to obtain further employment in Britain. He had to emigrate to New Zealand in the end and this is not at all fair.
  • Jonathan Glover spoke of the reality of social responsibility and said technology itself enables a certain level of detachment from the sense of responsibility. He demonstrated this point by referring to the pushing of 'the button' in launching nuclear war heads. He suggested that in order to overcome this sense of detachment, a baby should be placed along side the button. In order to qualify for the responsibility of pushing the button the person must first strangle the baby. The nuclear war head would undoubtedly kill many more babies and this process would bring the person in touch with that fact and highlight the pushing of the button for a terrible act that it is.
  • Jonathan Glover also suggested that scientists should be able to publish details of their experimental data when necessary, prior to peer review in a learned scientific journal. Important scientific debates should not be restricted by codes of practice nor the lag of time in getting published via the peer review system. He believes this has significantly hindered open dialogue in the case of Arpad Pustaiz.
  • Maurice Wilkins pointed out the importance of Ledoux's work on rats examining the emotion of fear. He said at last we may have gained real biological evidence that significantly supports what Freud concluded about the human mind. He suggests people read Ledoux's book 'The Emotional Brain' and less talk of 'phyco-babble' would be very useful in science and society.

Article first published 09/09/09

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