Time for Scientists to Rock the Boat

by Bryan Gaensler

The following column was published as the inaugural "ConScience" column in the May 2002 issue of Australasian Science magazine.

This article is ©2002 Control Publications.

One of the scientists I most admire is Albert Einstein. Being an astronomer, it’s not surprising that I should look up to a man whose elegant theories changed our very perception of time and space.

But what set Einstein apart is not just that he was a brilliant physicist, but that he firmly believed that his responsibilities went beyond his research. Gifted with an ability to see through to the underlying truth of things, Albert Einstein used his position as a public figure to speak out regularly about social justice, nuclear proliferation and human rights.

But just as in his brilliance, Einstein stands almost alone as a scientist willing to engage in the complex pressing issues of the day. Other names do come to mind, such as Andrei Sakharov or Noam Chomsky, but these men stand out as iconoclasts, often at odds with their peers over their willingness to speak their minds.

Scientists are generally well-rounded individuals with wide-ranging interests, and many give their time to important causes far removed from their labs.

However, what is lacking is a national presence. Many of the qualities of a successful scientist - intelligence, integrity and clarity of thought - are precisely those needed to make a useful contribution to the topics of current debate. Indeed many of the social issues on the agenda right now - the population debate, genetically modified foods and climate change - are those on which scientists are especially qualified to opine.

Yet while we hear regularly from lawyers, doctors and religious leaders on such topics, scientists seem happy to keep a low profile.

I often ask myself why the views of scientists are absent from these discussions. Certainly, judging by the heated conversations I’ve seen over morning coffee, it’s not that we don’t care or never think about such things.

Rather, there is a feeling that it’s not a scientist’s place to extend beyond the current paper or project; there’s concern that we lack credibility to speak out over wider issues, and there’s a measure of fear that there might be reprisals on our funding levels if we create too much of a fuss.

Whatever the causes, I find this reticence profoundly disappointing. There is much current debate going on over important issues such as detention camps and stem cells, and there is much to be gained if scientists would apply the impartiality they aspire to in their work to these contentious social issues.

With many emotionally charged viewpoints circulating in the media, the calm voice of reason that we scientists would like to think we can provide is exactly what is needed.

Late last year, I decided to go beyond my morning gripe over coffee and wrote a letter to the Australian Prime Minister expressing dismay over current policies towards asylum-seekers. Knowing that many other Aussies living overseas felt similarly, I emailed my letter to every ex-pat I knew, asking if they were willing to be a signatory.

Most wrote back to me straight away telling me that they indeed would like to take part; only a handful disagreed. Overall the response was overwhelming - in just 4 days, almost 140 people signed on.

However, the response from my scientific colleagues was disappointing. While 60% of the people to whom I sent my letter were scientists (reflecting my own biases), scientists comprised only 25% of the people who responded.

Many of my scientific colleagues have since told me they were simply too busy to reply, or agreed with my sentiments but didn’t want to put anything in writing. As I have argued, this seems symptomatic of a broad attitude among the scientific community: we simply don’t want to rock the boat.

We live in a period of great humanitarian crises and profound social change. With the active encouragement of our professional leaders, we scientists must abandon our reluctance to speak our minds, and need to begin engaging effectively with the wider community. Just as so many of us aspire towards Einstein’s scientific brilliance, we need to similarly emulate his compassion and concern for the world around us.

Bryan Gaensler is the Clay Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

This article is ©2002 Control Publications.

Last updated: 23-Jun-2002
Bryan Gaensler