Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 9, No. 8 July, 3, 1946
The Role of the Scientist
The Role of the Scientist
The war has had a profound influence on the social and political outlook of scientists. Where before the "ivory tower" attitude was prevalent, the problems arising from the Atomic Bomb and the widespread application of science to warfare have shaken the majority into a critical revaluation of the relations of science and society. How can scientists ensure that they shall be best fitted and organised for the pursuit of knowledge, and that the results of their investigations shall be applied to the benefit of mankind?
Modern science arose at about the same time as that tremendous advance in the technical equipment of society which is generally known us the Industrial Revolution, and in its development has kept step with the great changes in our civilization which have resulted.
That is not to say that it has been the architect of the revolution, consciously guiding it but rather that the new techniques made possible by increasing scientific knowledge have been borrowed somewhat haphazardly, and applied in an unco-ordinated fashion to the job in hand. Granted that new practices have stimulated fresh fields of research, as for example the science of thermodynamics arising from the practical problem of the steam-engine, it is generally true to say that those who made the fundamental discoveries had little hand in their application, nor little appreciation of the technical and sociological problems Involved.
Revolt against Science
Such a process was perhaps inevitable in the early stages, when the full potentialities of science were as yet latent, but since the end of the nineteenth century it has been apparent that this haphazard development would lead to disaster. The accelerated advance of knowledge has culminated in two devastating world wars in which all the powers of science have been devoted to undreamt-of destruction. The monotony of machine tending has stimulated a revolt against science, which is blamed for the sordidness of many aspects of our culture. But such protests are powerless against the tide of progress and quite ignore the many real benefits which science has conferred, benefits which the critics would be the first to miss in a return to the Middle Ages or the "noble savage."
In any case, this analysis has missed the main point, that the application of scientific knowledge to society has not been by scientists, but by the ruling classes of society itself. For the past 150 years, the uses of science, quite apart from its actual content, have been at the whim of the individual capitalists who have hoped to profit thereby. This is not to deny that many applications have filled important needs, as in modern medicine but many equally fundamental demands, such as for increased food production in India and China, which could well have been satisfied by organised scientific methods, have been left untouched because there was little prospect of their yielding pay immediate profit to the individual capitalist. This one sided development as evidenced by the over-emphasis on chemistry and physics, supporting the mushroom chemical and electrical industries as compared with biology, where results quite as profitable, e.g., animal and plant breeding, but less spectacular because of the longer incubation period, may be achieved, has seriously distorted our outlook. New inventions, which would benefit mankind as a whole, may actually appear unprofitable to the capitalist because of the large outlay on new plant, and the losses caused by obsolescence.
Thus, to confuse the potentialities of science with their perversion under our present system of production is a grave error. Science, properly applied, can much improve the material lot of the whole mass of mankind. The current food shortage is a case in point, where It is estimated that 60 million people face starvation, unless very radical steps are taken. To some persons, material things seem of secondary importance compared with the spiritual and intellectual, but they would not deny that a full belly is a prerequisite to human contentment. There is sufficient starvation and disease, bad housing and bad drains to keep our technicians busy for a hundred years at least. On the side of our spiritual and philosophical idealists, we have barely touched on the applications of sociology and psychology which can much increase the general happiness and mental well-being of men. Those monotonous Jobs which machinery seems to have created are precisely those which can be most readily performed by machines. The leisure made available, the increased time for education, may bring a flowering of cultural, intellectual and sporting activity such as has never been seen before. Those who have had the leisure and education in the past to appreciate these things have been by no means more intelligent or "philosophically inclined" than the remainder of the population. Such progress may be achieved, given a rational society. The job is to bring this into being.
Neglect by Society
But the very fact that capitalist society only uses those portions of a scientist's work which promises quick economic returns has led to neglect of science and lack of recognition of its benefits.
Most scientists are too pre-occupied with their fascinating technical problems to recognise the unpleasant fact that they are frequently starved for funds. Yet there are few who would not admit that increased finance and more assistants would allow them to tackle new problems of great importance, Lord Rutherford's research team used to boast that they could make all their equipment themselves, but the consequent loss of valuable time was enormous. Science is as frustrated in bourgeois society as are the arts, literature and music. It Is significant that the Soviet Union, on a basis of national income, spends ten times as much on scientific research as Great Britain.
The relative neglect by society has led scientists to ignore and despise those who merely apply their knowledge to practical matters. The purist approach of "ars gratia artis" is all too common among scientific workers, who fail to recognise that they are an integral part of society, quite apart from their function as taxpayers, and that their discoveries have important repercussions on the "outside world."
Ivory Towers Shattered
The explosion of the Atomic Bomb, perhaps the most important event in recorded history, has shown the fallacy of this attitude. By their lack of organisation, and failure to realise the consequences of their actions, the physicists handed over to military and state power' a weapon of incalculable effect, before they had evaluated the social problems which must inevitably arise. The vital opportunity was missed and they can now only act as advisors to the real controllers of the bomb. Not only this, but by their individualism they have allowed the mantle of secrecy to be spread over large fields of research. Whatever may have been necessary in the exigencies of war scientists are unanimous that secrecy in fundamental research is absolutely fatal, except in the most exceptional circumstances. Yet it is probably correct to say that the present official attitude to the publication of scientific work in certain fields approximates closely to that of Nazi Germany, where fundamental research rapidly declined. The brutal sentence on Dr. Nunn May, which has shocked the scientific world, is a pointer to the dangers which beset the scientist if we persist in narrow individualism.
Fortunately, the urgent call for organisation and political action by scientists has not been in vain. An example of what is being done was the recent conference on "Science and the Welfare of Mankind" organised in London by the Association of Scientific Workers. This body, previously representing a left-wing minority group, has now some 15,000 members and is a Trade Union well able to speak for the scientific profession. Many forthright statements, showing full appreciation of the situation, were made by prominent scientists. It was pointed out that in future scientists must investigate the social consequences of their work before, not after, they give it to the world, and must plan their work so that the consequences are good. They must evolve a new code of ethics to protect their knowledge from misuse and must learn to work together, both in actual research and for its application to the common good.
At the same time, the whole people must assert their wish to have science used for their own benefit. It is the job of scientists to win the confidence of the average worker, who still fears deep down in his heart that he will suffer because of the progress they will enable him to make.
This and similar gatherings in other parts of the world suggest that perhaps the majority of scientists have at last realised that only by joint action can they effectively prevent the stifling of research and that many now understand that science will only be able to apply itself fully to the solution of human problems in the new society which is arising out of the chaos of declining capitalism.