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Bernard Feld on the responsibility of a scientist


"[The military's] attitude can be symbolized by the cliche "Scientists should be on tap and not on top." Most of us feel that that's totally irresponsible and something that we can't accept."

"I know few scientists who say that the responsibility of scientists is only to science."

"MIT students should start to recognize ... that there are moral and ethical and social issues involved in the practice of the profession of scientist or engineer."

"I think we need to have a divorce between the academic and the military. The military has got its laboratories, and that's fine ... But I think the universities should stop."

By Katie Schwarz


Bernard T. Feld, professor of Physics, left graduate school at Columbia University to join the Manhattan Project and help develop the atomic bomb. Since the conclusion of World War II, he has been an MIT faculty member, researching elementary particle theory. He has been chairman of the Executive Council of Pugwash, an international group of scientists formed in 1957 in response to the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which called for scientists to join together to deal with the problems they had created -- most importantly, nuclear weapons and arms control. He has also been editor in chief of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Q: What do you see yourself as having accomplished with the Bulletin?

A: The Bulletin ... [is] not a technical journal. The subtitle is "a journal of science and public affairs".... It tries to explore the implications of different kinds of scientific developments for political, social, economic issues. We seek out and interview the academic community for new ideas, mainly on the issue of how to control nuclear arms. Beyond that, we recognize that there are a lot of important issues in the area of stability. For example, in the developing world there are serious questions which will determine whether or not war will break out in the future, and so we've taken considerable interest in problems of the uses of science and technology for development in the Third World.

Q: I have this interview which you did with Link in 1981. You mention that Student Pugwash was just being set up. So now it has been set up. What has it been doing?

A: Student Pugwash has pressed for a rallying ground on the issue of scientific responsibility. ... I attended two meetings just in the last six months: one of the Canadian Student Pugwash group, and one of the US Student Pugwash group. I told the group that these issues are not going to go away with my generation. They're here to stay, and it's important that the younger generation of scientists, scholars, researchers and people in general understand these issues, and understand the steps [that are] necessary to take to ensure that in fact nuclear weapons will not be used.

Q: What do the students learn by having these meetings?

A: First of all, they clarify their own points of view ... and then they get some idea of what kind of [political] action is possible. They now have an office in Washington, which tries to exert direct influence on the Congress with respect to some of these issues, issues concerning the development of new types of weapons, the deployment of new types of weapons, the MX issue, the development of new types of chemical weapons and things of this kind. And it's very important that the generation of people who are going to be primarily responsible for these things in a few years should think about and understand what the issues are. The main concern is that in fact no matter what our differences with the Soviet Union are -- and they're very serious differences, ideological and political -- nevertheless, we have one overriding common need. And that is to be sure that nuclear war does not break out.

Q: There's a stereotype of the role of a scientist in society, which is that scientists and engineers are only technicians -- they supply the means and others supply the ends. What do you think of that stereotype?

A: That's a stereotype which, of course, certain groups would like to maintain, most particularly the military. Their attitude can be symbolized by the cliche "Scientists should be on tap and not on top." Most of us feel that that's totally irresponsible and something that we can't accept. It may be that the distance between the result of some basic research process and the final application is appreciably long, so that one loses control over the final product. Nevertheless, there is a responsibility of the scientist to raise the level of awareness about the implications of a new scientific discovery ... at the earliest possible time, so as to give the process sufficient time to consider what could be done to keep possible harmful applications under control.

Q: To whom should these questions be raised?

A: At the first level ... the scientific community [should] be made constantly aware of these issues, so that there is some basis for unified approach. Then at the political level, it is important that our political leaders understand, insofar as they can, what the implications of some of these things are, in particular, what the implications of political decisions are with respect to these issues. And finally, of course, the public has got to understand, because it's the public, in the final analysis, that makes these decisions.

Q: So you think that this kind of spreading awareness is a basic responsibility, a part of being a scientist?

A: I think so. I think it should be part of the ethos of being a scientist. Not that you spend all your time on it, especially for a fairly young scientist in the most productive years. There's an instinct, and it's a good instinct, to get in there and do important and impressive science. Nevertheless, one should always keep in the back of one's mind that there are possible implications, and if one sees [them], one has the responsibility to make them known.

Q: How many scientists do you think share your views?

A: I don't know that I can quantify it. But I know few scientists who say that the responsibility of scientists is only to science. That's a way of thinking which I think has almost disappeared.

Q: Do you think that scientists' attitude toward their public responsibility has changed during your lifetime?

A: I believe that the awareness of this responsibility is growing in the scientific community, thanks in part to some of the things that [Reagan's] administration is doing. The introduction of the stupid "Star Wars" nonsense has raised a great reaction in the scientific community, a realization that this is a very dangerous thing, because the first Soviet reaction to any indication that we might be trying to build up a defense is the very simple one: any defense can be overcome by a large number of offensive forces. And it's much cheaper to increase offenses than to build these sophisticated and complicated -- and imperfect -- defensive systems. And most scientists agree on that. But somehow or other, the people in the administration have got this crazy vision that they're going to build a shield that eventually is going to render us completely impervious to nuclear missiles.

Q: How much of a voice does the scientific community have in comparison to, say, the Pentagon, and to lobbies?

A: Unfortunately, when it comes to lobbying, money counts. Just the budget of the Pentagon public relations office is appreciably larger than the entire budget of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. This gives you an idea of the priorities that we're setting in this administration.

Q: Victor Weisskopf has said that there's a supranational character to physics. Do you think there's a meaning to that?

A: There is a supranational character in the sense that scientists are accustomed to speaking to each other across boundaries and not paying attention to national boundaries when it comes to scientific work.... At an international conference, when one talks to one's colleagues, one doesn't ask what country they're from. It's as easy to talk to a Russian colleague about the latest developments in nuclear and particle physics as it is to talk to an American colleague. You have a head start, you already have this network of scientific communication. It's important if you think of ways of using this network to further the communication concerning the necessity of both sides acting sensibly to avoid nuclear confrontation.

Q: Do you expect that you and a scientist from some other country might have an easier time seeing eye-to-eye on something that wasn't physics, just because you had physics in common?

A: It's not so much seeing eye-to-eye as being able to talk to each other. If you know somebody and talk to them about other things, it's not so hard to talk about politics. If you don't know the people, then you have to break the ice. When we talk to the Russians, it's not so difficult to raise the issues of the Soviet dissidents, of Sakharov. And you find that very frequently people will be willing to give you a hearing. They don't always agree with you, but they'll listen.

Q: Recently it looks like the Defense Department would like to use the prestige of institutions like MIT to help sell the Strategic Defense Initiative. How is that going to affect the relationship between universities and government?

A: I think at the moment it's building up severe strains, and I hope that the American academic community will continue to resist this waving of large sums of money in front of their noses. Other sources of research funds will be slowly drying up. ... Now, if you're looking for research funds, the place to look is the SDI office. And I think this is a blatant attempt on the part of the administration to buy the scientific community. They're giving money for basic research. But once you get hooked on this kind of thing, once you want a renewal of it, they say "We'd like a little favor, we just need a little research on this thing. It's not a big deal, is it?" It's the wrong way. And I think it's a mistake. I think we should resist it.

Q: In Paul Gray's commencement charge to the graduates he said that MIT should not be interpreted as supporting anything as an institution. Do you think that goes far enough?

A: I think it's a step in the right direction. The president of a large institution like MIT has to choose his words fairly carefully. So far I think Gray has adopted a very reasonable approach to these sorts of things and I think it will continue.

Q: In the Chronicle of Higher Education there is an article saying that at the University of Illinois a colonel sent a memo out saying he wanted to discontinue projects with researchers who said they were going to refuse to conduct SDI research -- later on it turned out he didn't really have the authority to do that. Are we going to see more of those kinds of strains?

A: I think those attacks are going to go on. We have to be very alert to them. The academic community should adopt a united front, resisting that kind of attempt at intimidation. We've seen it before, it happens all the time -- attempts by the administration to get academic people to refuse to talk to colleagues from East European countries about completely unclassified matter. And the answer to this should be, bluntly, "Go to hell." Science is science, and we don't recognize those kinds of intimidations and we refuse to accept it. If it means that we lose some money in the process, so be it.

Q: How much of a united front is possible? How many people will join in?

A: It's a matter of, I think, a sort of a general feeling. If most of your peers take this attitude it's much easier for everybody. There will always be a few people calling themselves pragmatists. I will maybe agree that the Russians are the evil empire and we have to resist it. But on the whole the community in general adopts this approach. Academic openness is a vital aspect of the academic process and once we start to lose this, we lose a great deal. It can be irreversible.

Q: In terms of the responsibility of a student, what do you think a student, for example an MIT student, should be doing?

A: The first thing an MIT student should be doing is preparing him or herself to become a first-class scientist or engineer. But at the same time, I think MIT students should start to recognize, as they are, that there are moral and ethical and social issues involved in the practice of the profession of scientist or engineer, and that at least they should become aware of the problems.

Q: Do you think the so-called split between the two cultures, the scientist and the humanist, is an obstacle to scientists' having an influence on public policy?

A: I don't think so. I don't believe that this split is of meaning to science. I think in many respects it's artificial. I don't think that humanists can't understand enough about science and scientific issues to feel at least at home in these kinds of discussions. You don't have to be a technician, you don't have to understand how nuclear weapons work, to have some idea of what the consequences of a nuclear war would be.

Q: Do you have any thoughts about the committee on military funding at MIT?

A: I think that universities have got to break the habit, because it's so easy to get into the habit of taking money when it's easily given without asking too many questions, especially when there are no strings attached. But you know that in the future there are these hidden strings, that eventually you're going to have to pay a price. So I think that the direction in which Professor Kistiakowsky is moving is a very important one. I think we need to have a divorce between the academic and the military. The military has got its laboratories, and that's fine ... But I think the universities should stop.