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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 37 - May 2003    
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Double-edged science



The Iraqi conflict has again highlighted the 'effective' contribution of science and technology to military power and is a reminder, if one may sum it up so brutally, that the development of a civilisation is also measured by the sophistication of its weapons.

In this context, a recent Eurobarometer survey carried out in the future Member States of the European Union sheds an interesting and topical light on the issue. This first opinion poll carried out in Central and Eastern Europe on the subject of science and technology reveals that 60% of the inhabitants of this region, and 69% in the 15 current Member States believe that scientists share responsibility for any use - good or bad - to which their discoveries are put. Almost 45% of all Europeans think that scientists are responsible for the way their discoveries are misused by others. This means that Europeans do not only see scientists as members of a society in which they share responsibility for decisions taken, they also associate them with the negative uses of science. In terms of its impact on the image of researchers, science could also be seen as a victim of the 'collateral damage' of the war in Iraq.

This confusion in the public mind between science itself and the uses to which it is put is, of course, regrettable. Should the scientist who discovered the HCN molecule be held responsible for all the murders committed since by cyanhydric gas? The situation becomes more complicated, however, when scientists themselves take an active part in the applications of their science.

The First World War, for example, sparked a genuine moral crisis in scientific circles when the role of science in the massacres of the conflict was called into question. During the Second World War, and contrary to popular belief, it was not the politicians who commissioned the scientists to develop an atom bomb, but the very opposite: two physicists, Léo Szilard and Enrico Fermi, made strenuous efforts to convince the allies of the need to build such a bomb. Finally, it was after enlisting the support of Einstein that the research was initiated. In 1948, the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the formidable research effort at Los Alamos, summed up the opinion of many scientists as follows: 'In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humour, no overstatement, can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.'

'Equations do not explode,' wrote Bertrand Russell. But at a time of a blurring of the boundaries between fundamental and applied research, one may be excused for doubting whether a dividing line between science and its applications can still be drawn. In an age characterised by the omnipresence of science and the intervention - some would say invasion - of technology in all areas of life, it is no longer possible or desirable to separate science from society. In this respect, we must note - and regret - the silence of scientists at the present time.

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