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Does Science Know Right From Wrong?

Vintage American history photo of a nuclear weapon test by the American military at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia on July 25, 1946. The explosion was part of Operation Crossroads.
Vintage American history photo of a nuclear weapon test by the American military at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia on July 25, 1946. The explosion was part of Operation Crossroads.

The alliance between science and state is ancient.

Archimedes, the great Greek mathematician and inventor, designed weapons to protect the city of Syracuse from attacking Roman fleets. For thousands of years, blacksmiths developed new, more powerful alloys to make arrows and swords for their king's army.

Scientific knowledge, as applied to weapons and to national defense, is part of history's grand narrative. It is not, I'd like to think, why most scientists take on their chosen careers. Most choose a career in the sciences to break new ground in our understanding of nature, both non-living and living, or to develop scientific technologies that will better humanity. However, apart from few very rarefied fields of research where no funding is needed, there is an undeniable alliance between state and science.

Historical circumstances tend to intensify or relax this alliance. Typically, in times of war or during authoritarian regimes, the alliance grows stronger and the state calls upon its scientists to help defend its interests. Reactions from scientists vary. For example, while the Wright Brothers had no qualms selling their plane to the U.S. Army in 1909, the Brazilian inventor Santos Dumont was horrified to see airplanes used as weapons during World War I. That war is sometimes referred to as the "chemist's war" due to the widespread use of poison gases with horrendous results.

Typically, the military either develops a research complex aimed at creating new defense (attack?) technologies, or contracts the services of already established companies. During World War I, the German chemical manufacturers BASF, Hoechst and Bayer produced chlorine and other gases for use in the battlefield. Usually, the powers that are technologically dominant are the victors. The state-science alliance is perceived as essential for the survival and hegemony of the state and its population.

If World War I was the chemist's war, World War II was the physicist's. Between the invention of the radar a few years before the war in 1935 and, more dramatically, the atomic bomb in 1945, the application of new physical concepts to the development of weapons of detection and destruction was key to the victory of the Allies. Upon the first successful test of the atomic bomb in Alamogordo, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project responsible for the bomb, famously quoted the somber words from the Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds." The world, it was clear, would never be the same again. For the first time in history, the power of destruction could become global.

From the start, some scientists were vehemently against the use of nuclear weapons in any conflict, while others saw no other way to deter the enemy. Patriotism, national pride, scientific curiosity and the fear of having the Nazis develop the bomb were a potent fuel. (It turned out that the Nazis weren't even close to making a bomb, but information was sketchy at the time.) It was (and still is) puzzling how such a group of peace-loving, intellectually open individuals as assembled by the Manhattan Project could have engaged in such a horrific development.

Still, once the weapon was developed, the decision of what to do with it was not theirs. This is a key point in the state-science alliance: While scientists may, on occasion or even enthusiastically, work for the state to develop a new weapon, it is the executive branch of government, with support from the legislative (or not, in authoritarian regimes), that has the final decision power.

The success of American science during and after World War II prompted a golden age for science funding. Heated by the Cold War and the fear of a Soviet nuclear attack, the race was on to develop ever more powerful weapons. In the 1960s, the space race was added to the fire, and funding for science grew even more. Of course, basic (that is, not directly applied at least in the short term) science also gets a boost when this happens. In the U.S., this would be mostly research that the National Science Foundation supports. As Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development famously declared in his July 1945 report to President Truman (conducted at the request of President Roosevelt prior to his death) titled "Science the Endless Frontier":

"The pioneer spirit is still vigorous within this nation. Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer who has the tools for his task. The rewards of such exploration both for the Nation and the individual are great. Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress."

Science is an opportunity for the nation and for the individual. It cannot progress on its own, but must be aided by the state or, when is the case, by the private sector. Clearly, industrial research is essential and has become dominant in the past few decades. Private initiative is where it's at, including in the space race.

What rarely gets discussed, even if it's always implied, are the moral choices that are (or aren't) made by scientists who engage in different kinds of research. To label science as moral or immoral completely misses the point. Science is amoral. Science is a collection of facts about the natural world painstakingly carved out by a community of scientists who engage in detailed quantitative research and data analysis. This is true even for computer simulations of detonation shock fronts of explosive devices, for example, and even of engineers and technicians putting bombs together in an assembly line.

The issue of the right or wrong use of science emerges in the colliding front between scientists and their supporting sponsors, be they the government or the private sector. It is true that having the gun is not the same as using the gun. Since the bombing of Nagasaki, no nuclear weapons have been used against a civilian or military target. The policy of nuclear deterrence, one may argue, has worked, at least so far. But one can equally argue that having the gun is a necessary condition for using it. Having a huge collection of nuclear warheads is a highly unstable way to make peace, a point I made here before. And this is the issue at the heart of the science and state alliance. The alliance is a very unbalanced one. As was often debated during the last presidential campaign, the leader of a country with nuclear weapons is the person who is ultimately responsible for how to use them. The decision to "pull the trigger" doesn't rest with the scientists who worked to make the weapon.

So, is it right or wrong to work as a scientist in such a project?

There is no simple answer. People work in all kinds of jobs that may end up harming others. They do it out of choice, out of need, out of patriotic idealism, out of family tradition, out of a deep sense of national pride. The moral choice of how science is used rests with those who retain the power to decide how science is used. That's why it's so essential that we choose wisely when we decide who is leading us. Or who to work for.

Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and writer — and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, co-founder of 13.7 and an active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser

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Corrected: February 16, 2017 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this 13.7 post stated that Vannevar Bush's July 1945 report went to President Roosevelt. While the report had been requested by Roosevelt in 1944, it wasn't finished until after his death, so it went to President Truman.