Appendix M Extract from Report On Being a Scientist
THE SCIENTIST IN SOCIETY1
This booklet has concentrated on the responsibilities of scientists for the advancement of science, but scientists have additional responsibilities to society. Even scientists conducting the most fundamental research need to be aware that their work can ultimately have a great impact on society. Construction of the atomic bomb and the development of recombinant DNA—events that grew out of basic research on the nucleus of the atom and investigations of certain bacterial enzymes, respectively—are two examples of how seemingly arcane areas of science can have tremendous societal consequences.
The occurrence and consequences of discoveries in basic research are virtually impossible to foresee. Nevertheless, the scientific community must recognize the potential for such discoveries and be prepared to address the questions that they raise. If scientists do find that their discoveries have implications for some important aspect of public affairs, they have a responsibility to call attention to the public issues involved. They might set up a suitable public forum involving experts with different perspectives on the issues at hand. They could then seek to develop a consensus of informed judgment that can be disseminated to the public. A good example is the response of biologists to the development of recombinant DNA technologies—first calling for a temporary moratorium on
the research and then helping to set up a regulatory mechanism to ensure its safety.
This document cannot describe the many responsibilities incumbent upon researchers because of science’s function in modern society. The bibliography lists several volumes that examine the social roles of scientists in detail. The important point is that science and technology have become such integral parts of society that scientists can no longer isolate themselves from societal concerns. Nearly half of the bills that come before Congress have a significant scientific or technological component. Scientists are increasingly called upon to contribute to public policy and to the public understanding of science. They play an important role in educating non-scientists about the content and processes of science.
In fulfilling these responsibilities scientists must take the time to relate scientific knowledge to society in such a way that members of the public can make an informed decision about the relevance of research. Sometimes researchers reserve this right to themselves, considering nonexperts unqualified to make such judgments. But science offers only one window on human experience. While upholding the honor of their profession, scientists must seek to avoid putting scientific knowledge on a pedestal above knowledge obtained through other means.
Many scientists enjoy working with the public. Others see this obligation as a distraction from the work they would like to be doing. But concern and involvement with the broader uses of scientific knowledge are essential if scientists are to retain the public’s trust.
The research enterprise has itself been changing as science has become increasingly integrated into everyday life. But the core values on which the enterprise is based—honesty, skepticism, fairness, collegiality, openness—remain unchanged. These values have helped produce a research enterprise of unparalleled productivity and creativity. So long as they remain strong, science—and the society it serves—will prosper.