Deriving an Ethical Code for Scientists: An Interview With Joseph Rotblat

On a warm, windy afternoon in late June of 1999, I took a walk with Joseph Rotblat, the 1995 co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Pugwash Conferences on World Affairs, an international movement originally formed by physicists fighting for disarmament. Rotblat and 200 other people from 31 countries had come to the campus of the University of California, San Diego, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Student Pugwash movement.

At 91 years of age, Rotblat smiled easily but walked with an uneven gait. His shock of white hair was blowing in odd angles. A go-cart slowed down. Would Rotblat like to take the available seat to the next lecture? He smiled, and although we had just met 5 minutes previously, he took my arm protectively and waved the cart on.

Rotblat was warm and open as he reflected on the personal responsibilities of scientists, a topic he first became personally involved with at age 33 in the year 1941.

Next Wave: Can focusing on political issues early in one's career be detrimental?

Rotblat: My own career suffered. I was nominated for inclusion into the Royal Society in the 1940's, but because of my views, the nomination was rejected. I only became recognized as a physicist in my late years. It took another 40 years before I became a member of the society.

NW: Given the potential career risks, why should young scientists become involved in ethical issues?

Rotblat: For the same reason I was involved. They should become involved if they think there is a cause. I'm not asking scientists to sacrifice their careers, but just to spend a little bit of time thinking about the consequences of their work. Science is playing an increasingly important role in the whole future of mankind. Nuclear weapons are still in existence. India and Pakistan are in conflict, and there is a call that India should use nuclear weapons. ... The danger is there.

Furthermore, science could create other weapons of mass destruction. I'm particularly concerned about genetic engineering. If this [technology] goes unrestricted, it could lead to new weapons.

NW: You're also a proponent of requiring ethics courses as part of the scientific curriculum?

Rotblat: Yes, this is also my recommendation. Ethics used to be a part of religion. But I believe we can derive ethics through reason. We need to get people to think about it.

Rotblat recounted his own involvement with the Manhattan Project:

"In my life, I came across a dilemma. In 1939, my scientific work was [going toward the] development of the atom bomb. It went against my ideals, but I pushed it out of my mind. ... I thought that the Germans were also going to develop the technology. ... And if Hitler had the bomb, he would use it and win the war. It was a terrible dilemma." Rotblat added that political forces beyond his control ultimately decided to use the bomb, but not against Hitler. On 6 August 1945, the world's first atom bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

"It turns out I was wrong. ... The argument of deterrence is flawed. It's based on an assumption that we make rational decisions. Deterrence only works among rational people. But Hitler was not a rational person. Even if we both had the bomb, I'm convinced his last wish would have been to use the bomb. In hindsight, I wouldn't have worked on the bomb."

NW: But how about the rationalization that the bomb saved many more lives by ending the war earlier?

Rotblat chose his words carefully. "All the evidence has not been brought to light, and people disagree on this issue, but Japan was already militarily defeated. They were prepared for surrender. ... [U.S. President] Truman knew [the Japanese were prepared to surrender], but decided not to make any action. He needed the bomb not against the Japanese, but against the Soviet Union, to demonstrate our might."

"In the 1940s General Leslie Groves [director of the Manhattan Project] visited Los Alamos from time to time. He would have dinner with us. He asked us: 'Do you realize the main purpose of the project was to subdue the Russians?' We were shocked at the time--[the Russians] were our allies." In effect, the rationale that the bomb actually saved lives is bunk, he implied.

"Most scientists in those days were working in the ivory tower. They thought they were doing pure research, and it was up to others to think of the applications of their research. I think things are changing. ... The distinction between pure and applied research is hardly discernable. Applied research immediately follows [pure research and is often developed] by the same people. The idea of laisez-fair science eschews personal responsibility."

NW: But how can thinking and progress be muzzled?

"It's an exercise of our intellectual powers. We don't have to follow every idea. We are responsible for our work. But many scientists still cling to the old ivory tower idea that. ... their only obligation is to make known the results of their research."

"An ethical code of conduct has been around since Hypocrites. The care of a patient is a form of duty. Nowadays, scientists can be seen to have similar responsibility to society. The time has come."

"We have to stimulate awareness and thinking among young scientists. The text of Student Pugwash's pledge seems particularly suitable."

Ultimately, scientists have to remember their humanity, Rotblat said at a lecture later that night. He quoted from the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, the document written by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein in 1955 that became the touchstone of the Pugwash movement: "We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest."

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