A Scientist’s Manifesto
What would a set of guiding principles for scientist’s responsibilities to the society they are a part of look like? Resurfacing some old ideas.
What would a set of guiding principles for scientist’s responsibilities to the society they are a part of look like? Back in 2010, Professor Robert Winston took a stab at this in his book Bad Ideas? An Arresting History of Our Finest Inventions.
Four years ago I posted Professor Robert Winston’s “Scientist’s Manifesto” on 2020 Science. Having just gone back and read this, it still resonate deeply with me — so I’m reposting it in the hope that it will also resonate with others:
1. We should try to communicate our work as effectively as possible, because ultimately it is done on behalf of society and because its adverse consequences may affect members of the society in which we all live.
We need to strive for clarity not only when we make statements or publish work for scientific colleagues, but also in making our work intelligible to the average layperson. We may also reflect that learning to communicate more effectively may improve the quality of the science we do and make it more relevant to the problems we are attempting to solve.
2. Communication is two-way process.
Good engagement with the public is not merely a case of imparting scientific information clearly. It involves listening to and responding to the ideas, questions, hopes and concerns the public may have. We should accept that this kind of engagement with the public is a matter of good citizenship. We should reflect that sometimes proper dialogue with various sections of the public may inform some aspects of our work. Moreover, it can make any technology that is developed from our work more relevant to the needs of the public and less likely be dangerous.
3. The media, whether written, broadcast or web-based, play a key role in how the public learn about science.
We need to share our work more effectively by being as clear, honest and intelligible as possible in our dealings with journalists. We also need to recognize that misusing the media by exaggerating the potential of what we are studying, or belittling the work of other scientists working in the field, can be detrimental to science.
4. We need to recognize that the science we do is not entirely our property.
Whether the taxpayer helps fund our scientific education or not, most of our training and research is paid for by the public — in grants from the research councils or charities. The public has a major stake in the ownership of what we do.
5. Whenever possible, we should always consider the ethical problems that may be raised by the applications of our work.
Some scientists have claimed that science does not have a moral value; but while pure knowledge may be ethically neutral, the way this knowledge is gained and the use to which it is put can involve many difficult ethical issues.
6. We should reflect that science is not simply ‘the truth’ but merely a version of it.
A scientific experiment may well ‘prove’ something, but a ‘proof’ may change with the passage of time as we gain better understanding. Mere assertion that something is fact will not persuade many people of the rightness of what we say. It is worth bearing in mind that sometimes two well-conducted experiments can give conflicting results that are equally valid. Science is not absolute; it is often about uncertainty.
7. It is understandable and proper that we scientists are immensely proud of what we discover, but it is easy to forget that this special knowledge can sometimes breed a culture of assumed omnipotence and arrogant assertion.
We need to avoid arrogance because it can lead to misinterpretation of data and to conflict instead of collaboration with colleagues. Moreover, arrogance is likely to damage the reputation of science by increasing public mistrust.
8. Scientists are regularly called upon to assess the work of other scientists or review their reports before publication.
While such peer review is usually the best process for assessing the quality of scientific work, it can be abused. When conducting peer review, we should try to ensure that we are fair and scrupulous and not acting out of a vested interest.
9. We should try to see our science in a broad context, but also be aware of the limitations of our personal expertise.
We should consider that, when talking outside our own subject, we may be more likely to mistake the facts of a case. We should be particularly cautious about making predictions about the future of science, not least because creating unrealistic expectations can be damaging.
10. Governments, whether totalitarian, oligarchic or democratically elected, usually have vested interests.
Such interests are not necessarily conducive to good research or to good use of the fruits of knowledge. Government control of science can have malign influence. This is certainly true of totalitarian governments, but misuse of science is very common in virtually all liberal democracies, including our own. It is difficult for scientists to retain independence from politicians, because politicians ultimately make many key funding decisions. But we need to keep some distance from politicians, and should not avoid criticizing their decisions where we feel they are wrong or dangerous.
11. Commercial interests, so often promoted by governments and universities, cannot be disregarded if technology is to be exploited for public good.
But scientists need to be aware of the dangers of conflicts of interest and to retain a sense of balance, because commercial interests can be a bad influence on scientific endeavour. The history of science shows that the over-eager or narrow-minded pursuit of commercial interests can lead to the loss of public trust.
12. In the Western world, most of our best basic science is done in universities.
But historically, universities have been élite and mysterious institutions, and even today they are sometimes perceived as rather threatening places where the complex and unintelligible takes place. Those of us working in universities should try to help foster a new culture of open access to our institutions and, where we can, help strengthen activities which involve community service and outreach. Where possible we should do our best to support whatever aspect of public engagement is taken by the university.
13. Schools have the most vital role to play in encouraging young people to see the magnificence of the natural world.
But sadly, at present, many schools actively discourage children from appreciation of the wonders of science. We should try to support initiatives that may promote more practical and experimental work for children, and show our appreciation of inspirational teachers and their teaching. If we are in a position to do so, we should promote stronger connections and collaborations between schools, school-children and universities, because this is likely to help produce a healthier, safer society.
14. Just a generation ago, the mark of a civilized person was an appreciation of Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Thucydides, Rembrandt and Beethoven. But the pursuit of science has become so intense and demanding that today’s scientists are more likely to neglect our cultural inheritance.
We may wish to reflect that by broadening our own interests; thus we may help non-scientists to see science as part of our culture. Shakespeare, Thucydides, Goethe or even Milton may not be directly relevant to our scientific research, but the cultural values such authors represent are universal and deeply important. The words of the roman poet Terence are of particular relevance: Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto — ‘I am a man: nothing human is foreign to me.’
Reproduced with permission, and taken from the book Bad Ideas? An arresting history of our inventions by Robert Winston.