The power of science

“Man has mounted science, and is now run away with.” – Henry Brooks Adams

I was reading “A world destroyed: Hiroshima and its legacies” by Martin J. Sherwin and I thought about the intellectual conversation I had with Beiyu last week. We asked, “Has science already gone out of control?” I didn’t have a good answer to that on that day but now I have a better idea of how to approach this question.

Firstly, we have to ask, “Who controls science and the power of science?” In Dan Brown’s Inferno, we saw how a biologist created a virus and how he controlled where and when the virus was released. In doing so, in a certain way, the scientist controlled the science he invented. However, such occurrences are almost only limited to fiction and they are very rare in reality. In reality, as Martin Sherwin suggested, scientists have very little control over the societal impact of their inventions, i.e. how their inventions will be used.

An example is provided by Martin Sherwin in “A world destroyed”. Many famous scientists, including Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Leó Szilárd, worked on atomic science and contributed to the development of the first atomic bombs directly or indirectly. In a more ideal world, you would expect that people would heed their advice regarding atomic energy and weaponry given that they are internationally acclaimed scientists in the field. However, on the contrary, their views on how the atomic energy and weaponry in the international sphere should be controlled were not taken seriously by the politicians. For instance, Niels Bohr, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for “his investigation of the structure of atoms and of the radiation emanating from them”, went to propose an international atomic energy policy to Churchill and Roosevelt on several occasions. However, both men brushed his ideas aside as his proposed policy involved informing Stalin about all the development of the atomic bomb in the US. Bohr was a rather idealistic scientist and he believed that the only way the world could avert a postwar atomic armaments race was for the world to share all technological advances in atomic energy with one another. That certainly was not a preferred foreign policy approach so in the end, the Americans decided to surprise the Japanese (and the Russians) by dropping the atomic bomb in Hiroshima on 6th August 1945. Beside Niels Bohr, Leo Szilard, who conceived the nuclear chain reaction and patented the idea of nuclear reactor, also attempted to stop the use of atomic bomb on Japan by writing a petition to Truman who was the President of the US at that time. 70 scientists who participated in the Manhattan project (the R & D project to make the first atomic bombs) signed the petition and yet their voices were ignored. When I read this book, I felt quite disheartened. Scientists, who put in many hours of hard work to create something and who know better than anyone else how the something work, cannot control their prized product. At the end of the day, it is the men in power (the politicians in this case) who wield the new weapon. The powerless scientists can only stand and watch how other people control their product.

Besides weaponry, even the scientists who do research to develop new drugs are powerless to a large extent. I have been thinking about it quite a lot lately ever since my supervisor wants to patent the compound that I have been working on. In this case, the “men in power” are the rich pharmaceutical companies. Say for example, if one day a team of scientist develops a magic drug (perhaps one which can cure cancer), the magic drug will probably be only available to a few rich people. The scientists don’t really have the say to the price-tag attached to the drug. The drug discovery and development pipeline is pretty much structured to allow pharmaceutical companies to make big money. Take for instance, Ipilimumab, a FDA-approved anti-cancer drug which can treat late-stage metastatic melanoma better than other conventional chemotherapeutic drugs, costs USD $30,000 per treatment. In a four-dose treatment course, the patient has to pay a total of $120,000!! How many patients can afford this treatment? When the scientists conducted their research on Ipilimumab, were they thinking about saving the very few rich people or a broader group of cancer-stricken patients? Yet again, the powerless scientists can only stand and watch how other people control and sell their product.

With great power comes great responsibility. In this case, if scientists do not really have much power over our inventions, do they have to bear the moral responsibility of how they are used? I think, when we sell our ideas in the academia circle to get research funding and publish in high-impact journals, scientists always assume a moral high-ground. When we present our work, we like to look like we are responsible for how our work can impact the world. “Development in new form of energy can potentially solve our energy woes given the rapidly depleting fossil fuels”, “there are strong evidence that suggests that these family of compounds can act as in situ anti-cancer vaccine by activating the immune system to combat cancer cells” etc. But in reality, scientists can only talk about how their work can be applied to the world. In the midst of translating something from the lab into the world, any power that the scientists wield is lost. Should scientists bear the moral responsibility of how their work is appropriated? Perhaps, but either way it will not change the outcome. I would think that a less idealistic scientist who understands his/ her position in the pipeline of research would probably be able to thrive longer in the arena.

When Henry Adams remarked, “Man has mounted science, and is now run away with”, he was thinking about how Man is controlled by science (the horse which runs away after Man mounts it). I don’t think that is true from what I observed. Today, men in power (not the scientists) control science better than they have ever done before. Science is terrifying (chemical, biological, nuclear weapons) and science seemingly only makes the rich richer (medicine, material science, engineering) but it is only so because the men in power has appropriated science to be so. Today, science is out of control but perhaps it only seems so because the Man who mounts it has gone crazy.

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