Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote of pre-Revolutionary France, “We
have physicists, geometers, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians,
and painters in plenty; but no citizens.”
Our goal for the twenty-first century is indeed to have painters,
musicians, poets, astronomers, chemists, geometers, and physicists
in plenty, and—with Rousseau—to create a world of informed and
engaged citizens committed to creative public service.
Whether IMSA students go on to careers in science or not, we count
on you to give thoughtful and enlightened attention to the humane
uses of science, to the risks that attend new knowledge, and to the
responsibilities of scientists and citizens. You must also be able
to assess the power and the limitations of scientific knowledge as
it applies to public policy decisions. Like life itself, science is
organic, tentative; we may not know enough to give a straight
answer; sometimes, Nature can’t be pinned down. In some instances,
scientific knowledge can only provide equivocal answers to
policymakers; and there are important issues—like moral choices—that
science can only inform, not resolve.
The issues of scientific responsibility and integrity are broad and
affirmative—not merely confined to eradicating sloppiness and
misrepresentation. Teaching by example is indispensable, but it
doesn’t exhaust our obligation to create an awareness of issues and
obligations—not only for scientists, but also for the observers,
consumers, and patrons of science.
That is why we have come together this afternoon.
On this springtime afternoon in the year 2003, we are poised on the
cusp of a new millennium. During the millennium just ended, we found
the courage to reject Authority. We learned instead to listen to
Nature by doing experiments—our inheritance from Galileo, Newton,
and others. In fact, Galileo called his experiments cimenti—trials
by ordeal. The seventeenth-century gentlemen who founded the Royal
Society of London took as their motto Nullius in verba—“Don’t take
anyone’s word for anything!” Over three centuries, science has lived
by the principle that experiment is the best test.
Anthony Lewis concluded a millennial essay in the New York Times,
“[T]here has been one transforming change over this thousand years.
It is the adoption of the scientific method: the commitment to
experiment, to test every hypothesis. But it is broader than
science. It is the open mind, the willingness in all aspects of
life to consider possibilities other than the received truth. It is
openness to reason.”
When we are at our best—when we are truest to these ideals—we do our
best science, and we give our greatest gift to society.
The study of science must not be reduced to the veneration of a
corpus of approved knowledge. The strength of science lies in its
provisional nature, its open-mindedness, its capacity for doubt and
uncertainty. Richard Feynman has written of “the scientific spirit
of adventure—the adventure into the unknown, an unknown that must be
recognized as unknown in order to be explored ... To summarize it:
humility of the intellect.”
Knowing what we don’t know is the spirit of Paul Grobstein’s
approach to teaching and living science as “getting it less wrong.”
We might say of Nature as T. S. Eliot did of Shakespeare:
“Shakespeare is so good, it is impossible to get him right . . . but
we must get him wrong in different ways from time to time.”
Perhaps science’s experience with doubt and uncertainty is its great
lesson for humanity. Lawrence Krauss has reminded us that doubt and
uncertainty are in short supply—and we need to bring them back to
the public stage.
Science changes the way we see ourselves, and our world.
The quantum physicist Niels Bohr said that “[t]he goal of science is
the gradual reduction of prejudice.” Progress toward understanding
the genome—the map of life—has exposed the illusion of race,
illuminated our kinship with other species, shown us what we have in
common with a whole range of other living things.
MRC Greenwood’s appeal for diversity, for welcoming into the company
of scientists and the scientifically aware all the members of
society, itself embodies the goal of reducing prejudice. I would add
that for me one of the highest delights of doing science is working
with others—from many places and conditions—who share similar
passions, and similar ideals.
In a call for solidarity with scientists of the developing world,
Kofi Annan has written, “… Peacemaking and peacebuilding should
never be the exclusive preserve of diplomats and politicians.
“There are deep similarities between the ethos of science and the
project of international organization. Both are constructs of
reason, as expressed, for example, in international agreements
addressing global problems. Both are engaged in a struggle against
forces of unreason that have, at times, used scientists and their
research for destructive purposes. We share the experimental method;
the United Nations, after all, is an experiment in human
cooperation. And both strive to give expression to universal truths;
for the United Nations, these include the dignity and worth of the
human person and the understanding that even though the world is
divided by many particulars, we are united as a single human
How can we do more to engage people from all over the world in the
practice and values of science?
The new marketability of biotechnology raises anew a recurring
question for our society: who owns science? Drummond Rennie’s
account of the temptations and intimidations to which clinical
researchers may fall prey is echoed in John Le Carré’s recent novel,
The Constant Gardener. Corporate ghostwriting of research reports in
medical journals—now apparently commonplace—not only puts at risk
the public health and the health-care system, it undermines public
confidence in the credibility and objectivity of university
We in universities and laboratories frequently are exhorted to run
our institutions more like businesses. It is fair to note that not
every business is brilliantly run, but that is not the essence of
why such advice is misguided. A business makes products, sells
services, strives for profit. A university or laboratory exists to
seek truths, test ideas, transmit knowledge and the habits of free
inquiry. Both sets of goals may be noble. They are different!
I’m a little uncomfortable with the notion expressed in our
round-table that the two-cultures divide is grossly tipped, that the
problem is much more with “them” than with “us.” It should not, of
course, be acceptable in educated circles for people to feel no
shame—or even to take perverse pride—in their ignorance of science.
But smug provincialism can be found in many quarters, even within
science. The challenge lies not just between science and the rest of
human endeavor, it lies in the awareness—or purposeful ignorance—of
other cultures. I’d also challenge the assumption that authors,
artists, and film-makers are indifferent to science. In my
experience, creative people—full of their own curiosity and
striving—are our natural allies, and we should be making common
cause with them.
After an afternoon confronting the weighty challenges and
opportunities of scientist’s responsibilities—a citizen’s
responsibilities—I’d like to close by celebrating the privilege of
being a scientist. The freedom to ask any question, the pleasure of
spinning out tales about how Nature might work, the joy of finding
things out, the delight of telling others what you have found: it’s
a wonderful life!