Who Do Scientists Serve?

March 2003

An online search using “Google” for the two words “Iraq” and “scientist” will result in many pages of links to news articles telling how an Iraqi scientist agreed to a private interview with United Nations officials on February 6th. Most of the links point to the same Associated Press article, which was picked up by hundreds of American news bureaus. So many links to the same article might be said to show the importance of the story. (It also says something about the lack of diverse sources of information in our country—everybody gets their news from AP apparently.)

It is considered important that someone who worked in Iraq’s weapons program is “coming clean” and divulging the secrets behind some of the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that his government developed (the reports don’t add that the chemical and biological weapons were developed mostly as a result of financial support and materials shipments from the United States and Britain during the 1980s). There never was a follow-up story about what the scientist finally divulged, perhaps because it didn’t fit with the picture of “the danger posed by Saddam Hussein and his weapons” that George W. Bush wants people to believe. There was another AP report on February 11th about another Iraqi scientist that “played a leading role” in the bioweapons programs, who said her country “was justified in producing germ weapons to defend itself in the 1980s and 90s.” In contrast with the “scientist submits to UN” piece, this story was only picked up by a handful of news outlets. Perhaps it was not the hoped-for story about a level-headed Iraqi scientist criticizing the atrocities of her government.

The credibility of scientists is taken for granted in our culture, thus Iraqi scientists who publicly support Saddam Hussein must be “under threat,” or are “under electronic surveillance,” or are really “intelligence agents in disguise.” Obviously, intelligence agents are doctrinally controlled, whereas scientists are thought to work in “higher realms of truth” beyond doctrine. Scientists who wind up serving the aims of worldly institutions like governments must be victims of coercion, or are being duped. Secretary of State Powell asserts that “Saddam’s security officials have been working aggressively to discourage or to control interviews between Iraqi scientists and inspectors.” Otherwise, “free of intimidation, free from the risk of loss of life, they might tell the truth.” This would never be said of an intelligence operative. Unmentioned is the fact that Iraqi scientists really are under coercion, but not to support Saddam. The most powerful military in the world is mobilizing outside their borders and preparing to invade. How this helps keep Iraqi scientists “free of intimidation” or “free from the risk of loss of life” is difficult to imagine.

Scientists in the US are not threatened with imprisonment or death for taking a stand in opposition to the government, yet even here scientists are no better than the rest of humanity at scrutinizing critically the operations of their own government. US scientists are not flocking to the UN weapons inspectors with information about US WMD programs that they work on. This is not because the United States is harmless, but because scientists have no reason to do so. Scientists have a strong incentive to remain silent when it comes to government crimes.

Part of the reason is funding. Most scientists are at least part-time government employees, so criticizing government policy is “biting the hand that feeds.” US research and development is funded either by government agencies or by corporations. By granting or witholding funds these institutions have veto power over research choices. Jeff Schmidt, author of “Disciplined Minds,” argues that scientists have an “assignable curiosity” — the personal interests of scientists get redirected based on where the money is. For example, the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) says it wants to support “scientists, engineers, and innovators on the cutting edge of technology” working in areas as diverse as neural networks, lasers, and ground-penetrating radar. In a slick brochure entitled “Missile Defense Technologies: Tools to Counter Terrorism, 2002” the MDA states that the research it funds will have results that “are applicable in the war against terrorism and protection of the homeland.” Once the funding is in, scientists that get MDA grants are not expected to question the applications of their work.

Even when scientists don’t get paid by the Pentagon, most benefit indirectly from military spending. In my own field, astronomy, advances are made when telescopes are made more sensitive, or are enabled to operate at new wavelengths. Developing more powerful sensors of different wavelengths of light has always been a military goal, thus scientific understanding of the universe parallels the rise of military hardware. Radar development during World War II was responsible for the flourishing of radio astronomy, leading in 1965 to the discovery of the left-over radiation from the Big Bang using an instrument originally designed for satellite tracking. The Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF), the project for which I work operates some of the most sensitive infrared detectors ever devised, developed as part of a “symbiotic relationship” between astronomers and the Department of Defense (DoD). According to a study by the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the US National Research Council, the military “has invested large amounts of money in IR detector development for defense applications.” The study also asserts, “successful management of the U.S. astronomy and astrophysics research enterprise requires close coordination between NASA, NSF, DoD, DoE and many private and state-supported facilities.” “Symbiotic” work and “close coordination” with the DoD requires that a scientist suspend her critical attitude towards the military.

Like other professionals, scientists internalize the structure of the institutions in which they work. Otherwise they would not “get anywhere.” In Iraq and the United States both, this includes tolerating the weapons work that takes place as part of the overall research and development effort of the country. To critique the institution one works for to the “outside world” is to attempt to undermine it, as is understood in the case of Iraqi scientists. Powerful institutions depend on those who work for them reinforcing the status quo, not challenging elite privilege. Thus, scientists are expected to keep silent when it comes to the crimes committed by their governments and other institutions in which they participate. That expectation is rarely stated – scientists simply know how to act “professionally” by not discussing certain topics in public or at the workplace. The rewards are impressive and include a decent salary, job security, the opportunity to do intellectually rewarding work, and access to modern equipment. The achievements of scientists are lauded by society and their opinions are respected, but is that respect deserved when a scientist does little to advance the fight for a truly peaceful and secure future free from oppression?

At the very least scientists should end the tradition of silence and add their voices to the growing movements against the use of force and for social justice. But even more, they should attack as illegitimate their own privilege because there is nothing intrinsically noble about them or their work that they deserve to be put above other people. In addition to dismantling all weapons of mass destruction hidden in bunkers, warehouses, silos, and submarines by all governments around the planet, scientists should join the fight to dismantle the structures of power that lead to privilege for some and the oppression of others.

The author is a staff scientist at the SIRTF Science Center, California Institute of Technology. He is also on the Board of Directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, an organization that works in solidarity with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA).