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Do scientists need to have a civic attitude?

Bogdan Cranganu-Cretu,
ABB Corporate Research,
Baden-Daettwil, Switzerland


As we are entering this new millennium we are increasingly experiencing the fact that science becomes a dominant aspect of everyday life. It is then only natural to ask whether scientists should also be concerned with the social impact of their work, and if they should leave the "ivory tower" of scientific research and get involved in issues and debates arising in society - that is if they should develop and maintain a civic attitude?

On my part I consider this to be a rhetorical question. There is an obvious positive answer to it. But of course there are different levels of getting involved and there are different issues on which scientists should express themselves - and these are depending primarily on the level of development of the particular society in which the scientist lives and works.

Before going any further into considerations I think an attempt to define the terms should be in order. Civic attitude means getting beyond the small circle of co-workers or family members or close friends and reaching to others by advocating for various causes that may range from social issues to environmental concerns. A civic attitude may well mean the intent to serve others in close connection with the belief that getting involved in communities issues is everyone's responsibility. It is also civic attitude the willingness to accept and appreciate human differences and to act towards this desideratum.

There were excellent examples of scientists that displayed strong civic commitments - and their efforts were publicly acknowledged when they were awarded the Nobel prize for peace: Fridtjof Nansen back in 1922 and more recently Linus Pauling (1962) and Andrei Sakharov (1975). Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell (also both Nobel laureates - although not for peace) are other significant examples of scientists that developed strong attitudes in favor of major problems threatening modern society - such as nuclear weapons proliferation.

It is nevertheless obvious that from excellent exceptions to a general display of civic attitude in the scientific community there is an accumulation and evolution process - which by no means has reached its most intensive phase. "Our community's voyage of self-discovery is not over. I believe that it will lead us to a more active support of democracy, wherever it is threatened" was saying John Polany, Nobel laureate for chemistry (1986), in an article published in 2000.

But are scientists more "suitable" to have civic commitments? Definitely the scientist has a high level of education and even more, she/he is in the habit of keeping her/himself informed with whatever is new and important in her/his field and related fields. The scientist has developed the capacity to look for and understand relations between facts, between different aspects of surrounding life. Hence I find the scientist "fit" for developing and enacting civic attitudes. However, this does not mean that the scientists are entitled in any way to coerce the rest of society, because they have the power that derives from special knowledge - they still have to go through democratic channels. But the point is that she/he should act.

I consider the development of a civic attitude to be part of developing a scientific personality of ones own. The scientist should gradually become aware of the possibility, and more I would say, of the necessity to develop and display a civic attitude.

It might well be that a young scientist is so busy with making a career, starting a family, getting founds for his research (and if we stop for a moment here to think of the specific situation of a scientist in Romania - the picture gets pretty grim) that he does not even dream about getting involved in civic matters.

It might well be that she or he was never educated or exposed to any such type of attitudes - and I think that this is the case with many Romanian scientists. I am not referring here to principles of civic involvement that one may get from family or friends - I refer to systematic exposure to an education oriented on civic attitudes. I strongly believe that this is still missing in academic curricula in Romania.

Choosing to act responsibly on matters of civic importance means always choosing the hard way. It means - in a democratic society - entering a debate of ideas, but still a debate, and unfortunately one that is not "peer reviewed" by any a-priori accepted authority. In Romania the hurdle is even bigger - because the debate of ideas is not yet the accepted practice - it is much more the debate on particular persona that is so strongly promoted by politicians - to the extent that it appears to the public as the only type of debate.

What would be the way ahead? Acting on the academic and research environment from within comes readily to mind. We have to make without the excellent examples of the kind I mentioned earlier. The power may come from everyone of us sticking to the ethics of our profession. And I am not talking big scale. I mean just being the strong point in our lab or in our team. That would be a huge step forward. In some sense it is like whenever you see someone on the street dropping a waste instead of putting it into a bin you don't turn your head away - you tell him it is not ok. I must admit: this is easier said than done - that is why I see it as such a big accomplishment. Next we should seek representative position. It will be hard - because the present general conception associates the willingness to get into these positions with the cunning attitude of one that is willing to "cut corners". But that is the only way we can hope that a protest similar with the one enacted by the heads of laboratory within CNRS in France may become in a not so distant future a Romanian reality.

It is here that I see the role of the scientists - in taking the stance that is familiar to them from everyday practice and offering it to public understanding.

Ad Astra • Volume 3, Issue 1, 2004 • Culture, society and science
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