Scientists in the Age of Terror and Knowledge Economies
David Baltimore, the president of the California Institute for Technology, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1975. He recently discussed some of the dilemmas and issues facing scientists today with NPQ.
Pasadena — With all the controversies swirling around these days on scientific topics from genetic foods to biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction, one wonders where are the voices of scientists who once weighed in on the big issues. Whatever happened to the global link between science and conscience we associated with great figures like Albert Einstein, Hans Bethe or Andrei Sakharov?
During the Cold War era, scientists considered themselves part of an international enterprise. Rather than remain isolated from each other, we tried to penetrate the barriers between the Soviet Union and the United States to make personal contact in order to help reduce political tensions. The Pugwash Conference was the political arm of what was a larger, informal networking of scientists.
Ironically, the period since the end of the Cold War has seen more, not less, isolation of scientists from each other, especially in terms of personal contact. In part, that is because science has become "nationalized" as scientific advance has become seen as a competitive asset in a globalizing economy. It is indeed a paradox that the more we have become a knowledge-based economy, the less international scientific contact there has been.
When I was a graduate student in the 1960s, it was still very much expected that a young scientist would spend part of his or her training abroad and develop close relations with foreign scientists, and vice versa. That has also broken down.
Today, American students are often worried about going abroad for training because they then become less attached to the US job market and thus may hurt their career. They won’t be seen if they are abroad. While many Chinese students do study in the US today, Europeans, by and large, are no longer coming because they can now get very effective training at home.
Related to this growing importance of science in economic life is the "professionalization" of the university. Scientists are so much busier. They are running bigger laboratories. They are responsible for more people. They are writing more grant proposals. Since the health care industry has grown so large and issues from genetic engineering to global warming affect everyone, scientists spend more time communicating directly to the public than ever before.
Simply, scientists just have less time for the kind of public service or unofficial role in international affairs that was an important factor in preventing the Cold War from turning hot. The competitive nationalization of science—plus the Internet—mean fewer of the kind of personal relationships that were common in years past.
VISAS, KNOWLEDGE AND TERROR | Since Sept. 11, there is a new problem for the internationalization of scientific contact: visas. We are now excluding people from the US by putting up higher barriers to foreign students out of fear that knowledge in American universities and research institutes that could be used in terrorism—from computer viruses to biological warfare and other weapons of mass destruction—is going to be transferred to hostile individuals, groups or states.
Of course, we have to do this—but we need to do it efficiently so we don’t get in the way of international exchange that will end up hurting all science. At Caltech, for example, nearly 50 percent of the graduate students are foreign, mainly from China and India. So there is a very conscious transfer of knowledge that is a part of internationalization. At the same time, these foreign graduate students are the people doing the work in the research labs, helping to create the cutting edge of "American" knowledge. Furthermore, many of the foreign students, especially the Chinese, stay in America and are contributing in a very significant way to our great research universities in the sciences.
Clearly, striking a proper balance will not be easy.
Indeed, the visa problem is part and parcel of a whole new debate over limiting knowledge that can be dangerous to society or national security. I have just been asked to head a new roundtable at the US National Academy of Sciences on the issue of self-censoring scientific journals as well as on the larger topic of freedom of scientific communication in an age of terrorism.
Making the distinction about which knowledge is dangerous and ought to be censored is very hard. For example, today it is harder than ever to separate basic research and its application because the transition from discovery to application in our knowledge-based market economy is rapid and effective.
My own area, biology, illustrates the difficulty of defining potential harm, a really amorphous notion, in any given knowledge. What knowledge might lend itself to biological terrorism? The distinction between offensive and defensive uses of biological agents is really a matter of how information is utilized rather than the information itself. You have to know how to defend against bioterrorism, but in knowing that you also know how to inflict bioterrorism.
We live in a far different world than during the Cold War. But in this age of terrorism and knowledge-based economies, it is even more important that scientists find their public voice, especially on the international stage.