Moral issues increasingly test today's researchers

Scientists have a lot of explaining to do these days. From the dioxin-tainted soils of Times Beach, Mo., to the stalled Clinch River Breeder Reactor in Tennessee and the genetic engineering efforts of industry, what emerges from the quiet world of the laboratory is increasingly the focus of noisy public debate.

That is forcing a major change in the way layman and scientist approach each other, says D. Allan Bromley, former president and chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Yet, he says, increased communication between scientist and public ultimately might help speed ''technology transfer'' as an idea on a chalkboard becomes a real-life application.

Dr. Bromley says scientists, caught between a more suspicious public and a government less willing to dole out research grants, are having to defend their work as never before. Scientists are ''learning they can't expect other people to fight their battles for them,'' he says. Ivory-tower researchers may be replaced by politically savvy technocrats.

And the public, struggling to cope with major issues springing from such arcane fields as nuclear physics and microbiology, is being pried away from scientific naivete. Industries and universities, alongside educational organizations such as the AAAS, are helping this process along - with some success.

Bromley, also a physics professor at Yale University, spoke on these subjects in a Monitor interview. Some excerpts:

Are we seeing an anti-science backlash grow in society?

I don't think there is any anti-science in this country. There is active anti-technology. It's important to keep very separate in one's thinking the difference between the two.

People I run into are always prepared to react in a very favorable way when they understand that others are discovering something new about the way nature functions. Where they get upset is in their lack of confidence that engineers, scientists, technologists really have the wisdom to apply these findings in a way that's going to benefit society.

The fact is, we have applied a lot of technologies with side effects that are just coming home to roost - with the Love Canals of the chemical industry, with the environmental effects of burning coal to generate electricity. Part of that's because, until recently, we had (an) attitude that if the technology was ready to apply, we'd apply it, whether or not we understood what the side effects were, or what the science involved was.

What has prevented scientists from keeping society enough in mind?

There was a galloping arrogance that developed, particularly in academia, which separated the scientific community from the general public. One can understand that: having barely been socially acceptable before World War II, and coming out as virtual heroes afterwards, there was a tendency for some distance to develop.

The public shouldn't have allowed it to happen. But for a time the scientific community somehow felt that what they were doing was so important that they didn't have to account to anybody or anything.

It also gave a whole generation of graduate students the impression that they didn't have to worry about what the public thought. We may have trained our graduate students technically better than anybody else in the world. But in the broader sense of educating them about how their goals matched society's, they got little training at all.

Are scientists more concerned about the impact of their work, or are they stepping lightly only because of public opinion?

I think there's a greater concern throughout the whole community of the end result of one's research and its societal impact.

Before World War II, you had two very different types of research. On the one hand, there was what people called ''science'' - trying to understand the universe. It was assumed to be a gentleman's game with no possible application to anything.

Then, on the other hand, there was invention. That was mastery of nature. But you didn't sit back and try to understand the basic physical principles to find which one would be most apt for the task. You tried them all.

It was during World War II that mastery of nature and knowledge of the universe got welded together. Then people began to realize that understanding itself had an unavoidable, inherent societal impact because someone was eventually going to apply what was understood. It's a realization that's been growing rather steadily.

How is that realization affecting scientists' research?

In general, I think it's been a healthy thing. To the extent that scientists are sensitive to possible applications and goals outside of their science, they're much more apt to recognize something that happened during their research as being useful. So the time of transition from a discovery of something totally new to its being applied to something useful can be greatly accelerated this way.

Nobody really understands how this so-called ''technology transfer'' really works. But frequently it is brought about best when people doing the research are sensitized to needs, applications, and the possible uses of their work. They're the ones that are most apt to do something rather suprising, concrete, and effective with them. That's happening quite a bit more now than it used to.

If scientists are paying more attention to the implications of their work, what's keeping the communications gap open?

A growing fraction of our public is clearly unable to appreciate or comprehend some of the major, technologically oriented issues facing the nation today, let alone contribute in any way to the resolution of them. People become alienated from them if they have no quantitative feeling or sense.

Getting scientists to delve into public relations and the public to dabble in science means education for both. Who'll do it?

Across the board, at a lot of universities, we're trying to turn out a new generation of students a little better equipped to cope with some of these big problems facing the country. Here at Yale, undergraduates with no intention whatsoever about having careers in the sciences are taking courses like the one I teach on science and public policy.

We're also trying to put small patches on the side of a Titanic of ignorance that's coming at us through the secondary schools. What we're trying to do is get back and start giving people the foundations so that a lot of this they can teach themselves.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.