Although scientists like to maintain political neutrality, when open society is under threat, one needs to speak out in its defence.
Scientists and scientific institutions like to maintain neutrality when it comes to political matters, yet when the cause of freedom is under threat, this is no longer tenable. This is true, first, because scientific knowledge is the foundation of those instruments of war being used in attempts to expand tyranny, and scientists should have a view on the use of the fruits of their labour.
Second, good science can only flourish in open societies. So although the scientific method should remain free of politics, the environment in which scientists enjoy freedom to think can never be viewed neutrally. Therefore, scientists and scientific organizations should not be neutral about the war in Ukraine.
Scientists have a long tradition of keeping politics out of science. Of course, issues such as which research gets funded and what we do with the products of our scientific knowledge are often decided politically. But the process of gathering that knowledge, the so-called ‘scientific method’, is something that scientists tend to cherish as inviolate and above politics.
The reason for this outlook is that prior to the 17th century, before the method of gathering data and testing hypotheses was honed to its present state, our understanding of the universe was very much shaped by the dictates of authorities, particularly religious ones.
The work of Francis Bacon and others drew our attention to the fact that a true understanding of nature and its workings did not depend on the view of authority figures or the machinations of political intrigue.
It is perhaps not surprising and even quite understandable that, after that hard won success, scientists have tended to jealously guard the idea that scientific knowledge and the way it is gathered should be kept free of politics, war and the general capriciousness of authority.
Indeed, it would be accurate to say that it must be kept free of human biases if it is to achieve any real approximation to the way the universe works.
However, to go so far as to say that because the scientific method itself should be implemented in a way unsullied by politics, the scientific enterprise in its totality should also be cocooned in this way is a mistake. There are two reasons for believing this.
First, although the scientific method requires a detachment from the parochial concerns of humans, the products of those insights are used in ways that are inescapably linked to human political and economic decisions and ambitions.
For example, the discovery that the uranium atom could be split in the process of nuclear fission is an insight that is wholly separate from what any individual or group happens to think about the process. Fission is a manifestation of natural events embedded into the way the universe works. People are merely observers of the process.
However, it is a political decision as to whether that knowledge is applied to the assembly of nuclear power stations to supply people with electricity to light their houses and energize their industries, or to the construction of atomic weapons to threaten the annihilation of entire cities.
So, on the application of science, scientists and scientific institutions should not remain neutral. Of course, they may not be in consensus on how this knowledge should be applied. But because these insights can be used for both peaceful and cataclysmically destructive ends, they should encourage unrestrained discussion and deliberation about the ends of science.
When military equipment and munitions are used to rain terror and destruction on civilian populations, these are not scientifically neutral matters. They represent the work of scientific progress being applied toward the violation of international laws and the wreaking of terror on our fellow human beings.
Scientific organisations should, therefore, have no reticence about speaking out against the misuse of technology ultimately derived from scientific discovery.
There is a second reason why science should not be neutral in war time. The scientific method itself may require a reasoned detachment from the maelstrom of political activity, but the capacity to carry out that method and the measure of its success very much depends on the political environment in which it sits.
A well-known example of the way in which the political environment influenced free scientific enquiry is what happened in communist Romania. Elena Ceaușescu (1916–1989), wife of the General Secretary of Romania’s Communist Party Nicolae Ceaușescu, was a chemical engineer by training and took control of many prominent positions in the country under her husband’s rule.
She became president of the scientific council of the Central Chemical Institute and president of the National Council for Science and Technology. In these capacities, she was responsible for overseeing the country’s scientific and technological efforts. The Romanian Academy attempted to push back against this encroachment but was largely stripped of its powers. Elena Ceaușescu was subsequently held responsible by many people for the destruction of much of fundamental science in Romania during this period.
There is an impressive range of other examples. One might mention the catastrophic influence of Trofim Lysenko, head of the USSR’s Institute of Genetics, who bulldozed a Lamarckian view of evolution though the Soviet scientific community and hounded into prison, or to death, anyone who did not renounce the existence of the gene. He destroyed one of the most successful genetics communities in the world, in addition to pushing through farming methods that have been attributed to the cause of ruinous Soviet famines.
Or we could mention the appropriation of science by the Nazi Third Reich, as eloquently described by Michael Neufeld in his book The Rocket and the Reich.
Common to all these situations is the distortion, or even the destruction, of a country’s scientific capacity by state power becoming absolute, whether that be under the guise of communism, fascism or any other social creed for that matter.
We know that, contrary to these examples, societies with accountable and democratic political systems seem to do a better job at nurturing independent scientific thought. It seems to be no coincidence that the great flourishing of science since the 17th century occurred in societies that espoused liberal democracy.
In his book, The Science of Liberty, Timothy Ferris makes a strong case for the link between liberal societies and the rise of science.
We could also recall the apparent link between the intellectual freedom of ancient Athens that led to the great outpouring of philosophy, medicine and early astronomy in that city over two thousand years ago and the Athenians’ direct democracy.
The same was true of the Italian city states and their effusive social environments, which allowed for free intellectual expression, although their political situation was sometimes hardly democratic.
Science seems to depend for its health on being embedded in societies where as many forms of expression as possible are given as free rein as possible.
So, what is to be learned from this history? The world has many conflicts, and no scientific institution should feel responsible for expressing a view every time violence erupts. Partisanship means the taking of sides, making the institution then subject to the possible disapproval of those who oppose its stance, particularly the state. It seems reasonable that to avoid politicization, scientific institutions should keep their heads low.
However, when human affairs involve great collisions between societies to the endangerment of freedom of thought, so essential to the scientific enterprise, and the comprehensive suppression of open expression, such as that displayed in communist Romania, then I think that scientists and scientific institutions should not remain neutral.
Where that line is drawn is not an easy choice; no society achieves a full separation of state and science. But the crucial point is that this transition to dictatorial, even totalitarian, societies exist, and scientists should not declare a blanket disinterest in calling it out.
This brings us to the war in Ukraine, an historical instance of one society, after having in recent years within its own political body suppressed much free expression and many independent institutions, seeking to impose its will on another society that seeks to improve the accountability and independence of its institutions.
Of course, it can be difficult for scientists within the former type of society to express dissent. Several thousand Russian scientists did sign an open petition against the war, but they risk persecution or imprisonment.
However, in societies where relatively free expression is allowed, open society should always be vigorously defended. Scientists and their institutions should vigorously back a free Ukraine and the advancement of a freer Russia if they support the wider social architecture within which science can flourish.
Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Kyiv Post.