A Scientist’s Responsibilities
Chris Quigg

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 community.”

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 research.

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!

Closing remarks at the Illinois Mathematics & Science Academy Dialogue: Ethical Awareness for Tomorrow’s Leaders · Adler Planetarium, Chicago · April 3, 2003 · © Chris Quigg.