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Oppenheimer: Impartial Scientist or Advocate?

March 15, 2024

“Edward, the fact that we built this bomb does not give us any more right or responsibility to decide how it is used than anyone else,” Robert Oppenheimer says to Edward Teller in the Oscar-winning film “Oppenheimer” soon after the successful test of the first atomic bomb in July 1945 (in photo above, Teller is tenth from the left and Oppenheimer is fifth from the right – more details below).

Three months later, however, after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki death tolls and other effects of the bombings were becoming clearer, Oppenheimer had a change of heart and devoted his life to influencing U.S. and international nuclear weapons policy.

The remarkable story of the Manhattan Project, including its global existential significance – then and now – is perhaps the most extreme motivator to answer this question: What are the appropriate roles of researchers in policy? This question applies to a great deal of R&D, from the mundane to the significant, from the humanities to the sciences, and from the past to the present. Significant current examples include research and policy guiding the management of pandemics, artificial intelligence, and climate change, all of which exemplify the increasingly contested “science for policy” nexus.

A framework for this intersection that has been among the most influential for scientists was provided by Roger Pielke Jr. in his 2007 book, “The Honest Broker.” In Pielke’s view, multiple appropriate models for scientists exist, contingent on the decision context and on what sort of organization a scientist works for. Furthermore, Pielke argues, it is important to distinguish the roles and to be clear about which one a scientist is practicing in a given context.

The Pure Scientist gives no consideration to the potential use of her research and does not engage in informing policy. A large proportion of academic researchers probably fall in this category. Their research topics are driven by their own curiosity and the norms of their disciplinary peers.

The Science Arbiter welcomes engagement in policy, especially on policy questions that might be straightforwardly susceptible to resolution with an impartial analysis of the current state of the scientific evidence or with a bit of new scientific research. In my experience, the proportion of policy issues that fall in this category is small.

The Issue Advocate marshals scientific evidence in favor of a policy agenda, seeking to narrow the policy choices. The Manhattan Project – as complex as it was in execution – was unusually simple in its singular, policy-driven purpose: develop the most powerful bomb possible. Thus, Oppenheimer’s scientific work during the war was the epitome of a “science for policy” research agenda. He became an Issue Advocate in a policy arena full of normative questions. These days, many scientists are employed in advocacy organizations, where their role is to be Issue Advocates.

Finally, the Honest Broker of Policy Alternatives seeks to clarify and possibly expand the policy choices in service of the policymaker. This requires a deep understanding of the policymaker’s values, goals, and constraints in order to derive alternative ways to accomplish policy goals that would be compatible with the consensus science and with the policymaker’s decision context. The Honest Broker scientist is assessing the science as the Science Arbiter but in much deeper engagement with the policy context. This is the most appropriate role for researchers in academia, where any distinctive credibility and authority derives from our ability to provide objective and dispassionate analysis of scientific consensus that is relevant to the decision context.

Increasingly, however, some climate scientists argue that climate change is such an urgent and existential crisis that more scientists based in universities and science-focused government agencies should abandon any aspiration to be Honest Brokers and instead become advocates and even activists. I regard this as misguided and ultimately dangerous to the future of the scientific enterprise, university research, and good policy making. Such scientists, especially if they present themselves as Honest Brokers but are instead acting as Issue Advocates or activists, risk undermining confidence in the role of science in society.

While Pielke’s models focus on those engaged in the natural, physical, and social sciences, a fifth model is needed for most scholars in the humanities and the arts. Taking a cue from literary critic Caroline Levine’s 2023 book, “The Activist Humanist,” it could be called the Anti-Instrumentalist or Anti-Engagement model. These scholars are not disinterested in policy. Instead, according to the dominant research norms in the humanities and arts, the proper role of research is to diagnose and critique societal and policy problems, and to avoid offering potential policy solutions. As the title of Levine’s book suggests, she wants to overthrow this paradigm and embrace advocacy and activism for particular policy solutions, something akin to Pielke’s Issue Advocate model. In contrast to the Issue Advocate, however, Levine’s recommendations seem to be rooted in values that are assumed to be self-evident (e.g., anti-capitalism), rather than in any research-based analysis of potential solutions like that practiced by science-based Issue Advocates.

Taken at face value, Pielke’s models are naïve and simplistic relative to a much more fraught reality, and strong critiques of the Honest Broker model exist. I’d like to think Levine’s critique of the humanities might lead to more such dialogue and collaboration on solutions-oriented research between scholars in the humanities and sciences. I believe that the humanities could add to the productive epistemological and social critiques of the scientific enterprise previously offered by social scientists. Such critiques have helped scientists be more reflective about the biases of science and the limits to objectivity. More appropriate inputs to policy could result.

As the Manhattan project exemplified during World War II, and as climate research illustrates today, informing and helping shape policy choices almost always needs to be a team sport. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, scientific advisory boards, and national academy panel reports rarely catch the attention of Hollywood, but they are essential institutional structures that facilitate collaborative policy-relevant research. Whether research derives from the sciences or the humanities, universities have a key reponsibility to serve as a source of that research. Regardless of institutional structure, appropriate and realistic policy options from which policymakers may choose usually result from collaboration and co-production across disciplines and between researchers and policy practitioners.

Photo: Participants at the 1947 Shelter Island Conference on Quantum Mechanics, hosted by the National Academy of Sciences,
(left to right) I.I. Rabi; Linus Pauling; J. Van Vleck; W.E. Lamb; Gregory Breit; D. MacInnes; K.K. Darrow; G.E. Uhlenbeck; Julian Schwinger; Edward Teller; Bruno Rossi; Arnold Nordsieck; John von Neumann; John A. Wheeler; Hans A. Bethe; R. Serber; R.E. Marshak; Abraham Pais; J. Robert Oppenheimer; David Bohm; Richard P. Feynman; Victor F. Weisskopf; Herman Feshbach.
Photo Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Marshak Collection

Learn more about David M. Lodge

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