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A question of responsibility

By Margaret Harris in Chicago

The first 45 minutes of Amy Smithson’s talk here at the 2014 AAAS meeting were interesting but not especially controversial. Smithson, a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, DC, began by speaking about her role in combating the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons over the past two decades, and how this made her persona non grata for both conservative Republicans and the Clinton White House during the 1990s. After drawing parallels between Iraq in the late 1980s and Syria today, she outlined some of the tactics that “bad guys” like Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad have used to circumvent international weapons treaties and delay their enforcement.

At that point, Smithson changed tack. Warning that she was about to become “the skunk at the party”, Smithson turned her fire on the scientific community. Policy-makers, she observed, can’t make weapons of mass destruction on their own. For that, they need scientists, and over the past 60 years, “hundreds of thousands of scientists” have obliged by working on nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

Smithson acknowledged that some of these scientists have been driven by patriotism or security concerns, and she said she could understand that. But now that both the Second World War and the Cold War are over, she explained, other, less forgivable, motivations have become prevalent. “I have talked to people who are working to increase the lethality of smallpox – a disease that naturally kills about 30% of those who get it – and they tell me they are doing ‘cool science’,” she said, the disbelief evident in her voice. “At some point, isn’t it the responsibility of scientists to ‘just say no’?”

Most professional scientific bodies, Smithson continued, have codes of ethics. However, their remit is usually limited to punishing “bad guys” who publish plagiarized or fraudulent results. In contrast, Smithson believes that the real scientific “bad guys” are people like the Pakistani physicist A Q Khan, who sold nuclear secrets to North Korea, Iran and Libya, or Anatoly Kuntesevich, a Russian chemist and physicist who allegedly supplied Syria with nerve agents. “What we need is a more responsible culture,” she concluded. “Don’t look the other way.”

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  1. Howard Cohen

    Hurray for Amy Smithson! There should be more folks in science and technology who speak out about the ethics and morality of weapons work.

    • M. Asghar

      Yes, there should be more people to talk about the ethics and morality of weapons work in an “all inclusve manner” and not in a partial and partisan way of Amy Smithson, because this may very well make the things worse.

  2. Julio Herrera

    This is a subject which has puzzled me for years. From a historical point of view, it is very interesting to study how different researchers within the Manhattan Project reacted to the use of the first A-bombs; from Edward Teller, who kept on working on nuclear weapons the rest of his life, to Joseph Rotblat, who opposed them actively. Then, there’s also the case of Andrei Sakharov, who developed the first Soviet thermonuclear weapon, but then advocated the ban of nuclear tests. There’s still a lot to do nowadays, when the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) hasn’t been ratified, and we see regimes who use chemical weapons.

    I fully agree with Amy Smithson in that scientists should also be educated on the ethical side of their work. “Cool science” shouldn’t be takes just as interesting science, but also responsible science.

    • M. Asghar

      Scientific activity per se is and has to be a laic and secular in nature. However, when a research work (here, the discovery of nuclear fission with the possibilty of chain reaction) is put to use, multiple non-scientific actors beyond the scientists come into play and complicate the moral equation.


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